Richard Ayoade discusses ‘The Double’ (interview piece for CineVue)

40 (Originally posted here)
(Review for ‘The Double’ found here)

After drawing critical approval for his directorial debut – an invigorating adaptation of Joe Dunthorne’s cult 2008 novel ‘Submarine’, British comic-cum-filmmaker Richard Ayoade returns with sophomore feature The Double, taking as its source Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s dark, pre-Kafka novella but repositioning its nineteenth-century action to a more updated, if not wholly identifiable, moment and place in time. In it Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a withdrawn office cog whose incessant self-doubt dictates a life spent at the mercy of his oppressive surroundings – a faceless, disregarding work environment matched by a suicide-heavy apartment complex – and renders him incapable of vocalising his affection for copygirl Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), a similar casualty of crippling invisibility and isolation.

Contrasting with Simon’s wallflower-esque demeanour is James Simon (the titular double, also played by Eisenberg), an alluring, self-assured new employee who also happens to be Simon’s exact mirror image, a fact that no one other than Simon either notices or seems to care about. Quickly appropriating every facet of his binary opponent’s life, from his apartment and chances of promotion to Hannah’s affections, James excessively personifies Simon’s failings in extremis, forcing the latter to take drastic action or risk fading even further into the sidelines.

Playing out in a foreboding, hermetically sealed yet indistinct timeframe characterised by a reverberating soundscape, severe architecture (think David Lynch’s Eraserhead melded with Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956)) and, for undisclosed reasons, sixties Japanese pop, The Double is a complete change of pace for Ayoade, whose Submarine (2010) fizzed with romance and nostalgia for a progressive, lovelorn adolescence. It was also long in development, as, after being attracted to Avi Korine’s (brother of Harmony) initial screenplay in 2007, Ayoade embarked on a long-term collaboration that spanned throughout production of his first film, via a couple of Vampire Weekend music videos, until the pair settled on a suitable draft. “I read the book, and what seemed interesting to me was the really unique premise and idea of this double that no one else notices. That seemed very funny to me”, Ayoade opines, and it is indeed a strong foundation for pitch black, almost sadistic humour, where each opportunity for expertly timed jokes come at Simon’s anxious expense, though not in an overtly antagonistic register.

If Submarine (“the only thing of that length I had written on my own”) radiated with soggy optimism, The Double appears immediately more cynical and dank in theme, narrative and tone, yet nestled amongst each literary source material’s preoccupations with the unrequited love of two lost souls – however explicit – is a psychological insight into an antisocial male protagonist. So how did he find going about adjusting Dostoyevsky to his own sensibilities? “It’s really interesting because you have something much bigger to start from than how the film ends up, where it being inevitably distilled – or, depressingly, when things are omitted – can blindside you as to how successful it is in one medium. There’s something counterintuitive about having to alter a story that already works very well in its own form, and trying to make visual equivalences is quite difficult. Actually being on set is really involving and kind of horrible at the same time, but also really privileging and one is lucky and happy to be doing it. But it’s very hard to feel like you’re getting it right”.

One way of loosely presenting the original text’s key ideas is the construction of a particularly distinctive, dystopic verisimilitude, where the world Ayoade and production designer David Crank create is wholly beyond compare, nor subject to identification as to when and where it actually takes place. Largely shot in an abandoned business estate in Crowthorne, Berkshire, and made up of props found in an old Holborn post sorting office, where low doorways slotted perfectly into the image of Simon’s forbidding workplace, this stark, absurdist visual palette is both a contrast and renovation of the social world of imperialist Russia depicted by Dostoyevsky. “The underlying idea was that it was meant to look like the future as imagined by someone in the 50s, so it would be fundamentally wrong, not historically accurate and not something that would happen now or in the future or in the past. So it’s a major left turn of some kind”.

Taking place in an inarticulate metropolis of encumbering machinery, where the only source of light is artificial and nightmarish alt-logic reigns supreme, Ayoade consciously weighs in on previous representations of the office space in cinema – “A repository for broken dreams”, akin to The Apartment (1960) and Welles’ The Trial (1962) – by illustrating it as an alternate reality “where people still toiled under a bureaucratic system and were subject to tyrannical bosses”, in this case the tough Mr. Papadopoulos and seldom seen The Colonel, played by Wallace Shawn and James Fox respectively (two of many notable cameos sprinkled throughout). This allows for the romantic subplot, a miniscule component in the novella buried in and amongst the internalised headspace of its protagonist, between Simon and Hannah to transcend and negate the alienation of the office environment, offering both a narrative spine and a cause for a redemptive showdown. Asked why he enlarged this aspect of the story, Ayoade admits “while I completely emotionally relate to Simon, what causes his disintegration doesn’t quite feel like the same cosmology that we occupy, where you can unravel that much through status at work. I could be wrong because I don’t have a proper job, but it doesn’t feel as important as not being recognised by someone who you love, which seems to be far more dangerous or of a threat to you.”

Though romance ostensibly tinges the central conceit, The Double is by and large a disorientating blend of intricate existential lunacy à la Wes Anderson and Terry Gilliam at his most introspective (though Brazil (1985) is an obvious thematic equivalent), a sad treatise on loneliness that gives Eisenberg another opportunity to seamlessly and impressively disappear into two contrasting roles custom-made for him. It also proves once again that Ayoade is both astutely conscious of the language of cinema and a filmmaking name to take note of, continuing a Bergman-esque ambiguousness in terms of the geographical and temporal backdrops of his features that render them a sort of quasi-naturalistic peek into an alternative universe. An idiosyncratic auteurist stamp, yet how significant a tool is this approach? “There’s something funny about films that can so accurately present reality in minute detail that there’s often so much information that doesn’t feel appropriate, to the extent that I prefer ‘Old Hollywood’ to ‘On-Location Hollywood’”, foregrounding visual construction over naturalism. “For some films you don’t want too much reality because it gets in the way of the story. It felt appropriate to these projects, but I could imagine doing something that was contemporary and was in that vein if it felt right”.

Though The Double is European in flavour, with inflections of Edward Hopper, Magritte, and the cinematic output of Aki Kaurismaki, Louis Malle and Roy Andersson, Ayoade does cite The Dardennes Brothers and Lenny Abrahamson’s recent hit What Richard Did (2012) as contemporary examples of a – however inevitably heightened – organic style he could see himself adopting if the right film came along, though he’s quick to emphasise the pleasures found in the assembled world of Jacques Tati. Bashfully silent on the topic of future directorial outings, The Double is solid proof of Ayoade’s considerable talent at the helm of the lens, though ardent fans may be waiting a long time to see him on the other side. Asked if he would ever direct himself, he staunchly refuses to even consider it: “I couldn’t imagine not being able to think of someone better. There would have to be such an outbreak of influenza or a global strike for that to be remotely possible. And I would be a scab at that stage and there would be other things to deal with”, he says in customarily self-deprecating, deadpan fashion. It could be the premise of his next film.

Top Ten of 2013

Frances-Ha-film-still-31. Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach, 2013, US) – A sensitive look at the ever-increasing pangs of quarter-life crises. An immaculate twinning of star Greta Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach, who each line the precipices of contemporary cinematic visions of stilted adulthood and angst. A beautiful monochrome love letter to New York City by way of the French New Wave, Woody Allen style. A perfect film that spoke to me in innumerable ways.

Breaking-Bad_32. Breaking Bad – Season Five, part 2 (x8) (Cr. Vince Gilligan, 2013, AMC, US) – Completing both a perfect season of television and arguably one of the finest TV dramas ever created, these 8 episodes were a sensational concoction of the show’s finest ingredients, blended together to produce a thudding, devastating curtain close for television’s finest anti-hero: Walter White, whose journey from Mr. Chips to Scarface reaches its poetic conclusion.

Standout episode: Ozymandias (s05xe14, dir. Rian Johnson): Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking, shocking and unrestrainedly shattering episodes of television ever made. Johnson extends the show’s cinematic roots and delivers something that is at once a turning point for every character involved and a treatise on the slow-ebbing consequences of deceit.

28-before-midnight3. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater, 2013, US) – One of the many jewels in the series’ crown is the searing, incredibly attuned and humanistic writing and delineation of its characters, and Midnight upholds this and remains as true to its own canon as it is to the reality it so believably upholds. Yet, where the opening two chapters were entrenched in illusory romanticism (especially Sunset), the tone here is faintly darker as the simmering themes and various contexts of Jesse and Celine’s conversations take on restless, even drastic edges. Mature topics such as sex, parenthood and careers are explored, as are the permutations that lay, gestating, in between. (Reviewed for The Hollywood News)

12-years14. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen, 2013, US) – Subjecting the art gloss of previous films Hunger and Shame to a more formal model, McQueen’s latest is a towering achievement; an unremitting and equally gut-wrenching combined vision of survival and the hideousness of an evil that continues to stagnate in America’s past.

3NO9_StarredUp5. Starred Up (dir. David Mackenzie, 2013, UK) – A murky concoction of Alan Clarke-esque grit and Shane Meadows’ stark realism, Mackenzie’s latest is a pinned-backed and rough-edged prison drama that takes an unflinching look at institutionalisation, paternity, the unwritten hierarchies of prison and how destructive lifestyles could be seen as strikingly hereditary. With a vérité, fly on the wall approach and superb naturalistic performances (especially from Jack O’Connell and Ben Mendelsohn, playing father and son), this may be the stand-out British film of 2014 when it’s released in March.

leaves-upstream-color-reelgood6. Upstream Colour (dir. Shane Carruth, 2013, US) – Just as his first project, Primer, saw Carruth shunning established filmic principles in his approach to implementing the science fiction genre, his latest is more of an innate symphony of ostracism sung from a deeply idiosyncratic voice; an ambitious, inventive and hypnotically contemplative entity wholly beyond compare. It is within a lack of empathy for, and simultaneous defiance of, narrative codes and genre conventions that make this one of the most challenging and markedly unclassifiable films to emanate from American independent cinema in quite some time. (Reviewed for The Hollywood News)

blue-jasmine-cate-blanchett17. Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen, 2013, US) – However patchy his 21st century offerings have been, Allen’s tenacious film-a-year approach has paid dividends in numerously rewarding and productive ways, though its arguable that none have been as achingly, bitterly human, or indeed contemporary, as this. Through the prism of a Tennessee Williams-style outline, Blue Jasmine is another notch on a long list of strong female-led films for the seasoned filmmaker, one that – instead of merely adopting caricatures – retools them to mount a portrait of self-indulgence, privilege and deceit gone crushingly sour. It’s a weighty and progressively devastating drama with a chilly conclusion; an ending where the lyrics of the film’s title track, Blue Moon, ring wholly, hauntingly true for all involved. (Reviewed for The Hollywood News)

don_apartment38. Mad Men – Season Six (x13) (Cr. Matthew Weiner, 2013, AMC, US) – Essentially answering the question posed to central character Don Draper at the close of season 5 (“Are you alone?”), this sixth season makes atonal lurches from one unexpected plot curve to the next as it burrows further into Don’s shadowy cerebral cortex. A murkier tone – mirroring the tumultuousness of 1968 America – may make this one of the show’s weaker seasons, but a tepid season of Mad Men is still one of the best shows on television, and this makes for a memorably hectic prelude to season seven’s two-tiered series finisher.

Standout episode: The Better Half (s06xe09, dir. Phil Abraham): An unlikely tryst between Don and ex-wife Betty, sharing screen time for the first time since season 4, further sheds light on Don’s doomed approach to companionship, devotion and fidelity.

Spring-Breakers-promo06-780x5209. Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine, 2012, US) – Embracing the mainstream whilst simultaneously challenging its codes, Korine’s latest is his most fully realised and accessible film to date; a provocative study of chaos that refuses to sugarcoat the ugliness of what it both admires and reproaches. This could so easily have become what it has been advertised as: a cheap and tawdry perusal through its subject matter, using bikini-clad protagonists as exemplars of the accoutrements of present-day youth. Yet it isn’t merely a straightforward depiction of Girls Gone Wild-inspired carnage; quite the contrary in fact. It digs deep into the psyche and inner-workings of the central friendship, the allure of bad behaviour and self-destructiveness, and how the choices these girls make – and the impact of Britney Spears – reverberates and has repercussions.(Reviewed for Take One)

gimme-the-loot-gimme-the-loot-02-01-2013-4-g10. Gimme the Loot (dir. Adam Leon, 2012, US) – The feature debut of resident New Yorker Leon, this is an authentic and charming story of desperation and the desire to leave ones mark in a modern city that doesn’t particularly care for the protagonist’s outwardly diminutive voices. (Reviewed for CineVue)

Honourable mentions:

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Blackfish (dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013, US) – Searing and emotionally exhausting, what Cowperthwaite’s documentary lacks in analytical edges it more than makes up for in the sheer weight and comprehension of its central thesis: the destructive ignorance of SeaWorld and animal captivity.

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Girls – Season Two (x10) (cr. Lena Dunham, 2013, HBO, US) – Small screen auteur Lena Dunham’s excellent, ultra-hip series gets darker and more mature as it goes on, growing into an already well established groove whilst – unlike its protagonists – developing its sense of self.

Standout episode: It’s Back (s02xe08, dir. Jesse Peretz): A superb rug-puller that exemplifies Dunham’s prowess as an actress, storyteller and sculptor of authentic characters with authentic problems.

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Southcliffe (x4) (dir. Sean Durkin, 2013, UK) – Another harrowing offering from Durkin, who transcends and repackages his cinematic presence into this startlingly effective British miniseries, which focuses on a town’s devastation brought on by a spate of shootings. A staggering portrait of manifested frustration and grief, stuffed with excellent performances.

Standout episode: Sorrow’s Child (e03, dir. Sean Durkin). Actor Anatol Yusef effectively plumbs the depth of his character, Paul’s, anguish, building to rousing, hair-raising final moments soundtracked by Otis Redding.

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Museum Hours (dir. Jem Cohen, 2012, Austria) – A lucid, dreamy dissertation on the simultaneous intimacy and implacability of life, death and the art of simply looking.

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After Lucia (dir. Michel Franco, 2012, Mexico) – Released straight to DVD here in the UK, this is a gruelling portrait of bullying and the evils of youth that deserves a wider audience, if not for the relentless torment of its protagonist then for the spectacular performance from the actress who plays her, Tessa Ia. (featured on Best of 2012 list)

(A list dedicated solely to 2013 UK releases can be found on HeyUGuys’ Movie Bloggers poll)

Review: Downton Abbey s04 e01

PD69988316_DOWNTON_2678043b(dir. David Evans)

Where season three of Julian Fellowes’ prized possession, Downton Abbey, collapsed under the weight of its numerous plot conveniences and event-heavy, gradually wishy-washy eight episode run, it was followed by a Christmas special that was a painfully slow example of the show at its posturing worst. Instead of exposing the series’ carefully developed ensemble to anything particularly noteworthy, or indeed progressive, ‘A Journey to the Highlands’ was a tour de force in tedious storytelling and gaping non-sequiturs, where dramatic tension stemmed merely from a carnival-set tug of war and an altercation with a spiked glass of punch. It did, however, do something right in its abrupt killing off of protagonist Matthew Crawley in the tacked-on climax, a decision that lets a little air back into the show’s stuffy, snails-pace development.

At a time of creative shortages, Matthew’s untimely demise was met with widespread disdain – clearly from those blissfully unaware of actor Dan Stevens’ vehement, vociferous designs for departure pre-season three – yet provided a blessing in disguise; a chance for Fellowes to swerve his sinking ship in new and fresher directions. And that he has if this opening episode of season four is anything to go by; a feature-length icebreaker for what will hopefully be a wallow-free beeline back to the boldness and simplistic machinations of season one, where character relations took precedent over whatever tragedy loomed murkily around the corner.

The episode opens with the series’ – easily the best looking show on UK television – proclivity for glorious mise en scene returning in full, gothic-inflected swing. A solitary light dangles amongst the midnight darkness enshrouding the Abbey, its occupants sleeping and corridors vacant save for chief lady’s maid O’Brien absconding for pastures sunnier, though probably less eventful. It’s a stirring beginning that lays the groundwork for what will essentially be Fellowes’ new-fangled modus operandi: out with the old and in with the new.

That isn’t to say the show is now inundated with new faces, quite the contrary in fact; aside from Lily James’ young, spunky Lady Rose (a by-product of Sybil’s passing last season) injecting new blood into the stately home, the season looks set to move its focus back onto the family at the core of the story. This means we have characters actually doing something noteworthy instead of fading into the detailed background. Most notably active are Maggie Smith’s Countess of Grantham, who sets about trying to aid the unemployed Molesley (in a beefed up role); Thomas and Cora contending with a draconian new children’s nanny, and Mrs. Hughes, who attempts to simultaneously reawaken Carson’s past whilst planting Isobel Crawley back into the present tense. It’s Isobel who gets the most heartrending line of the episode (“When your only child dies, then you’re not a mother anymore. You’re not anything, really”), a conclusion she’s reached in a deep state of mourning.

Also trapped in infinite bereavement is Mary, whose skeletal, Mrs Danvers-esque figure and wispy vocal tones are a physical embodiment of how bereft she is, unable, even after six months, to come to terms with being both a widow and a mother to a fatherless son, now the heir of Downton’s estate. Her father, the gapingly one-note Earl of Grantham, looks to shield her from the outside world and divert attentions away from her role in the running of Downton, a role diminished by Matthew’s death. Someone no longer toiling under the thumb of old-fashioned patriarchy is Mary’s sister Edith who, thanks to the new fangled attractions of a London in the throes of the burgeoning, 1922’s Jazz Age, is being whisked away from a life of dowdy shadow-dwelling to the height of cultural sophistication. It’s a marked and somewhat divisive move to swap the activities of its two principal ‘upstairs’ characters, but it works and respectively allows Michelle Dockery and Laura Carmichael a much-needed change of pace.

Though some would argue the show is still trapped in its all-out flirtations with the melodramatic frameworks and narrative prospects of soap – of which it is arguably a handsomely coiffured modern example, it’s apt that this season opener deals so openly with the figurative light at the end of a gruelling tunnel. It also proves how, given a degree of hindsight, a major fatality can be more of a fortuitous opportunity than a cause for concern, dealing with it by getting over it.

Review: Blue Jasmine

blue-jasmine-cate-blanchett1(dir. Woody Allen, 2013)
(Originally posted at The Hollywood News)

Nestled amongst a seemingly unending European sojourn (his previous took place in Rome, his next 1930s France), Blue Jasmine is Woody Allen’s return to the states since 2009’s shabby Whatever Works and provides the foundation for his most biting, raw and germane film in quite some time. However patchy his 21st century offerings have been, Allen’s tenacious film-a-year approach has paid dividends in numerously rewarding and productive ways, though its arguable that none have been as achingly, bitterly human, or indeed contemporary, as this. What starts as a typically breezy jaunt through feminine angst – accompanied by the usual stereotypically mapped place-setting and neuroses inflected humour, descends into tragedy as quickly as the film’s protagonist waxes boastingly lyrical about her once dexterous life to anyone unfortunate enough to gain her attention.

Blue Jasmine opens with Jasmine (Cate Blanchett, on toxically rousing form), a financially destitute ex-socialite, aboard a flight from New York to San Francisco to seek refuge from the ruinations of her past life. She’s the forty-something widow of a Bernie Madoff-esque businessman-cum-exploiter (Alec Baldwin) who, unbeknownst to his blissfully unaware spouse, fuelled their luxuriously moneyed lifestyle through shady deals and stolen equity. In the wake of her climactic fall from grace – and her husband’s jail-set suicide, Jasmine (refashioned from Jeanette, which “had no panache”) turns to adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) for both a reprieve from the past and an incentive for a new, frantically cobbled together future.

In a steadfast bid for substantiality, Jasmine attempts to rise above what she sees as the menial ineptitude of Ginger’s blue collar existence by deciding to embark on either a career in interior design or resume her education in anthropology, a scholarly background she quickly dropped for a man who promised her bountiful wealth and status amongst New York’s upper crust. Looking to maintain that her stay in San Francisco – already a step-down from her dwellings in Brooklyn – will be as temporary as possible, Jasmine assumes a position of weary advice-giver to Ginger by schooling her in the dos and dont’s of her relationship with greaseball Chili (Bobby Cannavale) whilst simultaneously becoming the object of affection for a lecherous dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) and a budding congressman, played by Peter Sarsgaard. She also learns that a life of haughty entitlement overshadowed by a murky history ensures that her desire for a second bout of upward mobility is as bottomless as the glass of vodka constantly by her side.

Through sustained flashbacks we see the lofty highs and eventual lows of Jasmine’s marriage to Hal, where cracks were blanketed by her blissfully unaware, somewhat conscious ignorance and a complicity she surmises as herself being a witless bystander in a world she was ill-equipped to navigate, only enjoy. Although the segueing between present and past becomes slightly jarring on an assemblage front, its use as a method to show how the reverberations from one have a lasting, damning effect on the other allows the layers of Jasmine’s cracked and sadly conflicted personality to gestate. It also establishes the dichotomous relationship between Jasmine and Ginger, which is expertly investigated (and written) in the current tense as the characters continue to share vastly dissimilar outlooks on, and expectations from, life and the men who weave in and out.

In a powerhouse, awards-worthy performance, Blanchett excels as the delusional and mentally unstable pill popper, who arrives in San Francisco a washed-up relic of a pre-recession America with a vicelike grip on the material remnants of a bourgeois regime and a tendency to speak to herself (a narrative device Blanchett is fully capable of making appear organic). Once again charting the boundaries between comedy and tragedy, this is the most consistently together Allen has been for a while; his script is dense and ponderous as it tackles relatable and modern issues, something quite alien to his cinema of late. Through the prism of a Tennessee Williams-style outline, Blue Jasmine is another notch on a long list of strong female-led films for the seasoned filmmaker, one that – instead of merely adopting caricatures – retools them to mount a portrait of self-indulgence, privilege and deceit gone crushingly sour. It’s a weighty and progressively devastating drama with a chilly conclusion; an ending where the lyrics of the film’s title track, Blue Moon, ring wholly, hauntingly true for all involved.

Review: Love Is All You Need

love_is_all_you_need_20000147_st_7_s-high(Susanne Bier, 2012)

Collaborating for the fifth time with writer Anders Thomas Jensen – following Open Hearts (2002), Brothers (2004), After the Wedding (2007) and the Academy Award winning In a Better World (2010), Danish director Susanne Bier returns to cinematic consciousness with Love Is All You Need (2012), perhaps her most broadly mainstream film yet. Set both in her native Denmark and the sun-kissed shores of the southern coast of Italy, Bier’s latest is a frothy mixture of romantic comedy and familial unrest as she surveys the looming nuptials of a young couple whose respective parents are reaching something of a crossroads in their vastly dissimilar lives.

 The remarkable Trine Dyrholm plays Ida, a Danish hairdresser who, whilst recuperating from chemotherapy and waiting for the results of her final oncological tests, discovers her slobbish husband Leife (Kim Bodnia) is cheating on her with a younger woman. Meanwhile Philip (played by Pierce Brosnan), an Englishman living in Denmark, is a lonely, middle-aged widower and estranged single father whose contentment in a life of moneyed solitude has rendered him consistently uninterested in forming lasting relationships.

 Events conspire to entwine these two increasingly lost souls as they embark on their journey for Italy to attend the wedding of Ida’s daughter Astrid and Philip’s son Patrick, young lovers whose path to matrimony has a few obstacles in store.

 Marking a notable change in tone in comparison to her previous hard-hitting dramas, Bier’s Love Is All You Need is a grounded but somewhat slight and uninspired perusal through several romantic comedy clichés, suffering from a narrative that owes a considerable debt to films such as Mamma Mia! (2008) and Laws of Attraction (2004), both of which also star Brosnan. In a rather sloppy appropriation of the genre, Jensen’s screenplay spends too much time establishing the characters and their respective settings that he forgets to actually imbue them with any particularly memorable flavours, entrenched as they are in well-worn tropes and characteristics. The relationships shared between the various lovers, friends and family feel shallow and underdeveloped, making early sequences – and many pivotal later ones – appear weightless and underdone, giving the illusion of believability despite a distinct lack of properly drawn histories and emotions. This is notable through Brosnan’s character, whose alienated relationship with his progressively confounded son isn’t given the time to breath or develop.

 Sumptuously captured by cinematographer Morten Søborg, the film moves along at a brisk pace and slowly becomes more engrossing once it decides that the budding relationship shared between Dyrholm and Brosnan is its most significant overarching plot, but the beautiful, sun-dappled scenery barely masks a threadbare story that wears its predictabilities on its sleeves. If warmth is all you need for a comfortable romantic comedy, then Love Is All You Need provides the requisite fodder, just don’t expect anything particularly affecting from a filmmaker trying to meet Dogme-inflected panache with a more conventional model.

Interview: Sharlto Copley for Elysium

Elysium-02
(Originally posted at The Hollywood News)

After bursting onto the cinematic scene with his critically lauded and commercially successful feature debut District 9, director Neill Blomkamp returns this week with sophomore film Elysium, a project that shares key thematic similarities to its predecessor only injected with a considerably higher budget. Meeting science fiction with relevant social commentary, Elysium is set in the year 2154 and stars Matt Damon as Max, a man trying to bridge the gap between two polarised worlds: an overpopulated, ruined earth, and Elysium, a man-made space station built for the wealthy. Events conspire to make Max’s mission an uphill battle, events presided over by Elysium’s Secretary of Defence (Jodie Foster) and her deadly, ruthless earth-bound operative Kruger, played by Blomkamp’s childhood friend and District 9 star Sharlto Copley. The Hollywood News sat down with Copley to discuss his role in the film, his working experience with Blomkamp and Matt Damon, and his future career away from acting.

Q: Sharlto Copley, tell me a little bit about the character of Kruger.

SC: Well, Kruger is, I suppose, a futuristic version of an ex-Special Forces black ops soldier who hides out on earth and lives amongst the earthlings, and he gets activated to perform illegal, off the books operations for the Elysium politicians when they have problems with earth.

 Q: You’ve gone from District 9 to more comical roles in, say, The A-Team; how did you approach playing an out-and-out villain?

SC: It was interesting because it was probably the furthest removed from my natural personality of anything I have done so far. Well, maybe that and Oldboy – I did Oldboy after this, so those two were like as far as I can get from my natural personality. Even somebody like Murdock [in The A-Team] who’s crazy and does all the different voices. It was a little harder this time round.

 Q: Kruger is bulkier and perhaps more physical than other characters you’ve played. It’s a lot more of a physically intimidating role than, say Wikus Van De Merwe in District 9, which was already a very physical role. Did you have to bulk up specifically for the role?

SC: Yes, as well as mentally just have to be in a certain frame of mind. It wasn’t a big method thing or anything, but it was just accessing a side of myself, I suppose, that I don’t often do.

 Q: This is your second big screen outing with Neill Blomkamp, where he explores similar themes to District 9. He obviously has a largely bigger budget this time round; did your working relationship change at all as a result of this?

SC: No, the budget didn’t change anything except making it easier for us as we had a lot more time shooting than we did on District 9. Most of it was shot in Vancouver in the lap of luxury, and I wasn’t the lead so I wasn’t working all the time so it was just a lot easier and, I think, more of a pleasant experience. It was maybe less personal for me than District 9 was in terms of the content and exactly what we were doing, so maybe not as fulfilling in that way. But District 9 was gruelling and hard; some days on set I found myself saying “Please let me get through this day!” I didn’t have anything like that on Elysium; everything was a lot more fun.

 Q: How involved were you in the project? From the get-go or did you join at a later date?

SC: Not as involved as I was with D9 at all. Neill pretty much this time – he even said to me,“Listen dude I just want you to stick to the lines this time”, because he worked in a much more structured way. So he was like “So I’m working with Matt [Damon] and Jodie [Foster], so I don’t want you going off and freaking them out, coming up with new shit in the middle of a scene”. And then the first day that I get there, he’d been drilling this into me all the time and I do the scene with Alice [Braga] in her house and I stick exactly to the lines in the script, every comma, every pause, and Alice doesn’t, she goes off and she does this wonderful, dramatic performance. So I took Neill aside and I said, “She’s not sticking to the lines what’s going on?” and he says “Well I’m sort of relaxing that now”. So I say “Dude you just have to let me go”, so he did and he let me just do my thing most of the time, so this time it isn’t one hundred percent improvisation, maybe just about seventy percent or so.

Q: What’s Neill like as a director? Is he quite strict or does he allow you to bring in your own ideas?

SC: He very much casts actors and expects them to do their thing. He doesn’t get involved; he’s not really into the actor’s performance and motivation. He doesn’t sit down and workshop it before filming or anything like that. He’s visually and emotionally working on the story as well as working on the tone, and only really comes in when he needs to tweak something. So he’ll come in and tweak a performance or tweak a tone a little bit one way or another. With Kruger it was always going to be a thing with how funny he was versus how serious, so we went through a few options of making him a litter more darkly comedic at times and a little less darkly comedic at others.

Q: Was he a darker character before you became involved in the project then? Because you are known as an actor for bringing a sardonic humour to roles.

SC: No, not really. He changed a lot compared to what was written in the original script, which is something I never ended up doing. We just developed him by going through a series of different ideas for what the character should be.

Q: What was it like acting alongside such big names as Matt Damon?

SC: It was amazing. Matt and I hit it off straight away. We shared a love of film, writing and everything about movies so we’d be constantly talking about that, and the people around us probably found it a bit much at times! I had some surreal moments, because Matt has played a South African in Invictus – and he loved District 9 and loved my performance in that film, so it was a bit weird for me being in a film with someone of his level. I’d be preparing for a scene and getting serious – and it’s a bit difficult for me to stay in a particular frame of mind for long periods of time – and just before I went in I would be getting into character and I’d hear “It’s the sweetie man coming”, and it would be Matt impersonating me in District 9! I had these weird reality moments where I’d be thinking “This cannot be happening!”. It was great also because I felt very supported; because with District 9 I felt like the real acting pressure was on me and Jason (who played the aliens). So this time the calibre of everybody else was unbelievable, I mean Wagner [Moura] and Alice – who are from Brazil – are incredible also. It just made everything easier. I knew that they had gone through several names of who was going to be the lead because I was cast before everybody else, and as they went through the names – and I’m not going to mention any names – but various names came up. Matt happens to have a very hardcore look and seems like a guy you wouldn’t really want to get in a fight with, but they were thinking of going the opposite way and casting a few guys that don’t look like that just for casting against type. And I remember just smiling to myself and thinking “Okay if you cast any of these guys it’s going to be a walk in the park for me. I’m going to rip these guys’ heads off”. But as soon as they said Matt I thought “Oh shit! I’m really going to have to up my game”, because Matt has so much intensity, and to look like I could kick his ass I would have to really man up for this one. But I was so glad that they chose him, I felt it was right and that he did an amazing job.

Q: You both share a notable chemistry in the film, especially during the intense fight scenes.

SC: Yeah! I just had to up my game for that.

Q: What were the fight scenes like to shoot?

SC: Brutal, they were brutal! I mean, we’d be taunting each other every day and we both got very physical as we are both physical guys, so it was fun to do. But brutal.

Q: You’ve gone from District 9 and immediately went straight to Hollywood for big mainstream projects. What processes do you have regarding choosing oncoming projects?

SC: You know, you have to sort of choose wisely. The point that I am at in my career now, you don’t get a lot of choice of the best stuff that is out there. I haven’t, for example, played the lead in anything since D9; I haven’t had to take the whole responsibility for a film because I haven’t been offered anything that excited me enough, or I haven’t been able to win anything that excited me enough to do that. So most of what I’ve done is either ensemble pieces or little experimental pieces like Europa Report – a little project where I did a sort of cameo in because it was interesting and quite ‘out there’. I tend to look largely at the role in question and see if I can do or add something that I think is interesting and valuable to the project.

Q: You come from a background of producing and directing films that have been in festival circuits. Any plans to do a feature film in the future?
SC:
Yes, definitely. I’m going back very much into writing, directing and producing, and I have a few things that I’m starting to develop.

Q: Any particular topics or genres?

SC: Cross-genres actually. I like fantasy and science fiction but one of the things I’m writing is a big war epic, so I’m not necessarily stuck into any one genre.

Review: Elysium

Elysium5(dir. Neill Blomkamp, 2013)

(Originally posted at The Hollywood News)

After taking both critics and the box office by storm with his steaming debut District 9 – a film whose heavy socio-political themes were evened out by a refreshing sense of style and humour, director Neill Blomkamp makes a welcome return with sophomore project Elysium, a worthy if not wholly effective follow up. Similar to D9, which, for the most part, managed to blend the tropes of the alien-invasion movie with contemporary and socially relevant commentary concerning apartheid, Blomkamp infuses his latest with a similar amount of allegorical rumination, only this time it’s bolstered by both a significantly larger budget and a more polemical stance on class regimentation.

 

 Elysium sees Blomkamp returning to the realm of science fiction to depict another tale of the disquiet between two distinct, and distinctly realised, societal worlds. In the year 2154, the planet is divided into two disparate constructs: an overpopulated, ruined Earth rife with squalor and moral decay, and the eponymous Elysium, a pristine man-made space station for the extremely wealthy looming above amongst the stars, its circular profile resembling a judging, restricted eye. As earth continues its slow descent into near total destruction fuelled by disorder, crime and poverty, its suffering inhabitants continually intend to seek refuge on its adjacent locale, which boasts an oasis of affluence and homes equipped with machines that have the ability to seamlessly cure every known disease and ailment.

Looking to bridge the gap between the two and bring equality to these worlds is Max (Matt Damon), a blue-collar worker who’s been saving all his life to finally move to Elysium. When events conspire to put Max on a steady road to his demise, he reluctantly takes on a dangerous mission that pits him against Elysium’s Secretary Delacourt (a prickly Jodie Foster) and her uncompromising determination to maintain the unspoilt nature of her beloved constructed planet. Battling insurmountable odds, Max finds that if he’s successful, he could bring about the protection of millions of people on Earth, as well as save his own life and the life of his childhood love and her terminally ill daughter.

Starting out in a similar fashion to District 9 and the way it introduced a serious premise lined by social commentary before immediately delving into the character’s quests to break artificial boundaries, Elysium makes good on the substance and inventiveness Blomkamp laid foundations for first time round. The larger scale allows him to flex his predilection for visual innovation; his perception of a dusty, future Earth drowning in squalor is believable, as is the ultra-sleek planes of Elysium, however nondescript it seems to be (the inhabitants are rarely seen, the identical houses seem constantly empty). Yet the film suffers from the director’s continuous trajectory and drive for exploring his various ambitions; the plot conceit is engaging and thought-provoking yet the themes regarding greed, corruption and a lopsided society become dormant once the narrative’s momentum picks up, a narrative that quickly becomes overcome with energetic, albeit generic, action.

The film appears imbalanced and rife with plot holes, which is strange for a filmmaker with such a precise way of constructing unfamiliar and extraordinary scenarios and environments. Yet it is boosted by an infectious imagination and first-rate casting, from Damon’s well-judged protagonist to Foster’s severe Delacourt, via D9 alumni Sharlto Copley’s vicious gun-for-hire operative Kruger, a startling alternative to the notable yet submissive Wikus Van De Merwe. As a director who strives to tell tales of grand sociological concepts that don’t seem heavy-handed, Blomkamp mostly succeeds however broad his brushstrokes tend to be, yet with Elysium he fashions an allegory that is exciting at first but ultimately says very little.