Nearly two months after its premiere last September in Toronto, The Double (New Directors/New Films), Richard Ayoade’s take on Dostoyevsky’s novella featuring Jesse Eisenberg as both Simon James and James Simon, was still being met with reviews that ranged, for the most part, from warm to pretty enthusiastic. At Slant, though, Chris Cabin finds that Ayoade “builds the story into a nondescript otherworld, ruled over by an all-consuming bureaucracy, but it’s in service to a mood of unerring misery that’s never given compelling context. Whatever the film’s interest may be in the marginalized, the writer-director never alludes to what would even be worth fighting for in this nightmarish industrial landscape. In the absence of any sense of hope or good, the potent cynicism of The Double seems childish and frustratingly thin.”
“Despite his leading man status, Eisenberg’s gangly stance and diffident manner make him a born character actor,” suggests Steven Mears in Film Comment. “Simon James is merely an exaggeration of the standard Eisenberg type: clipped delivery, discomposure, propensity to end each encounter with an apology (even inanimate objects seem to inspire contrition). Conjuring the mirror image, Eisenberg tweaks his trademark affectations in service of an antithetical creation; his sparrowlike twitches take on hawkish dimensions. And in ‘playing double,’ he joins a tradition of actors juxtaposing familiar and oppositional takes on their personae (see Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou, Nicolas Cage in Adaptation, Jake Gyllenhaal in Enemy).”
Update, 3/29: Steve Rose talks with Ayoade and Eisenberg for the Independent.
Updates, 4/4: “There are funny cinephile touches of Billy Wilder, David Lynch and perhaps even Aki Kaurismäki, and the sex-coaching and life-coaching scenes might call to mind Eisenberg’s cinema debut in Dylan Kidd’s Roger Dodger,” writes the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw. “It’s very smart work.”
For Anton Bitel, “no matter whether The Double is viewed as a ‘night terror,’ a Kafkaesque comedy (with suicidal tendencies), or a long, dark journey into Simon’s schizophrenic ‘ames’ (a security guard’s insistently incomplete spelling of Simon’s surname, corresponding to the French for ‘souls’), Ayoade has crafted a disorienting human mystery tinged with romance, melancholy and humor blacker than night—as well as a quirky entry in the ‘invisible friend’ subgenre.” Also at Little White Lies, Adam Woodward interviews Ayoade.
Dispatching to the Guardian from Sundance, where Return to Homs (ND/NF) won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize (Documentary), Xan Brooks wrote: “Shot over two years in the city dubbed ‘the capital of the revolution,’ Talal Derki’s harsh, jolting documentary traces the [Free Syrian Army] protesters’ journey from pacifism to violence and finally towards martyrdom, the only ending they can envisage once the conflict turns against them…. Derki keeps his focus exclusively on the small band of rebels as their hope turns to despair. Is it crass to wish for a little more structure, context and analysis?”
“Derki first filmed in Homs, ‘the capital of the revolution,’ in 2011, when the Syrian Uprising was still in its jubilant infancy,” writes Elise Nakhnikian at Slant. Among the fighters he focuses on is “Abdul Basset Saroot (called Basset by his friends and his adoring fans), a soccer star turned hero of the revolution, who crowd-surfs the streets and delivers eloquent speeches from improvised platforms.” As the years roll by, “the cynicism Derki and Basset express about the power of documenting and sharing their story feels somewhat misplaced. The media activists who risked their lives to record these scenes did so at first, Derki says in 2012, with an optimistic certainty that ‘these images would shake the world to its core.’ Instead, he says bitterly, ‘The world watches what is happening, how we are getting killed one by one, while it is silent as a graveyard.’ But while the world may not have given them the unqualified support they want, it has hardly been silent on the subject of the conflict in Syria—and one of the main reasons it hesitates to do more is uncertainty over what kind of government the rebels are fighting for.”
“Return to Homs has rather more going for it than sheer topicality,” argues Neil Young in the Hollywood Reporter, “and it should endure as a viscerally direct, consistently informative account of how participants experience the hazards, tedium and lethal thrills of urban combat, and as a portrait of young men radicalized and energized by their circumstances.”
Updates, 3/29: “Eschewing impartial reportage for visceral on-the-ground sensation, the Damascus-born Derki drops the viewer in media res with handheld camerawork, covering (among other things) shootouts that are as adrenaline-pumping as any Hollywood action movie,” writes Jared Eisenstat for Film Comment. “But the blood is real, the bullets kill, and whoever’s behind the camera better get out of the way of that tank…. Return to Homs carries the risk of sensationalizing current events and feeding our insatiable appetite for close encounters with violence from the safety of a movie theater. Yet it also presents a perspective on a pressing reality that may otherwise escape our attention. A film like Return to Homs can endure as an accessible and enduring account of the Syrian war, offering a powerful, meaningfully shaped narrative that also speaks to our era of citizen media.”
For Variety‘s Peter Debruge, this is “a remarkable achievement in immersive conflict-zone filmmaking… What the film lacks in context it gains in visceral eyewitness value, its countless tragedies serving as a potential rallying cry to supporters wherever this Sundance World Cinema docu winner unspools abroad.”
“Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat [ND/NF] makes mince of expectations, savoring the delicate upsetting of filmmaking’s possibilities,” begins John Semley at Slant. “Bucking a tradition running from The Exterminating Angel to Carnage, The Strange Little Cat makes its single setting feel roomy and accommodating, relieving the strain of suffocation that typically grips films set in confined spaces.” This is “a film of overlapping sound design, carefully manicured frames, curiously configured shot-reverse-shots, and controlled minimalism…. As pleasant and effortless as Zürcher makes his formal persnicketiness and Akermanian aesthetic rigor seem, his film feels lightweight; it’s zero-calorie, dissolve-on-the-tongue-type stuff.”
Last fall, I opened an entry gathering a dozen or so reviews of one of my own favorite films of 2013.
Updates, 3/29: R. Emmet Sweeney interviews Zürcher for Film Comment.
“Tom Shoval’s Youth [ND/NF] depicts the ill-advised kidnapping scheme of two Israeli brothers (real-life brothers Eitan and David Cunio), from plan to aftermath,” wrote ND/NF co-programmer Dennis Lim in a dispatch to the New York Times from the 2013 edition of the Berlinale. “More complex than it first seems, this study of brotherly attachment and fraternal psychology broadens into a tough-minded generational portrait that subtly addresses many aspects of contemporary Israeli life, from the role of the military to the fault lines of class and gender and the recent economic protests.”
“Throughout the film, Shaul [Eitan] wears promotional t-shirts of violent Hollywood action movies like Drive Angry, The Black Dahlia, and Rambo,” notes Alan Jones at Slant. “As a part of the film’s narrative, the shirts makes sense, as Shaul gets them for free from his job at a movie theater, but as a piece of social critique they feel oddly on the nose. They suggest that the brothers’ acts of violence are an attempt to find emotional catharsis and financial security via a would-be Hollywood film plot. While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is never explicitly mentioned, its specter is always present, from Yaki’s rifle to his brutal but effective military training to the very presence of a concrete reinforced bomb shelter. Given the weight that the ethnic conflict in the region has on the population of Israel, it seems facile on the film’s part to blame pop culture for Yaki and Shaul’s actions.”
“The film features masterful use of widescreen photography and tracking shots,” writes Christopher Bourne at Twitch, “as well as excellently crafted scenes such as a family dinner which gains considerable tension from the brothers’ (and our) anxiety over the trapped girl they have confined in the basement shelter of their family’s house.”
The Hollywood Reporter‘s Deborah Young notes that “Shoval knows that character rules in a low-budgeter and draws noteworthy perfs out of his non-pro leads… Cinematographer Yaron Scharf divides the space between the family’s suffocating but warm apartment and the cold concrete emptiness of the shelter where the girl is being held—both claustrophobic alternatives in the boys’ option-less world.” Here in Keyframe, Jordan Cronk finds that Shoval’s “themes of ingrained social expectations and the cyclical aspects of human nature are presented with little if any finesse.”
Update: Neta Alexander interviews Shoval for Film Comment.
Update, 3/29: Brian Brooks has a few questions for Shoval.