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Barton Fink

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 25 October 2017 06:53 (A review of Barton Fink (1991))

What exactly is Barton Fink about, really? What do all of these vague symbols and political allusions add up to, and does the deeper “truth” to them really matter? Barton Fink seems in deeply enamored with its own ambiguities, both in narrative architecture and thematically.


It’s about the mental and emotional unraveling of a blowhard writer lacking in any discernible talent but not lacking in any smug self-satisfaction an ego with some references to fascism thrown in. I remain unsold on there being more to “get” here than merely a cavalcade of disparate but fascinating ideas crammed together with panache. The Coen Brothers manage to sustain the weirdness and free associative nature of the plot and characters, seemingly held together by black humor and a pervading sense of dourness, with artistic bravado and technical mastery.


Look no further than the persistent symbolism of Barton’s unraveling blind and artistic blockage. It’s first glimpsed by the wallpaper of his hotel room coming undone, and Barton trying to push it all back in place as if restoring creative order to the world. It’s followed by a series of character interactions that reveal layers of deceptions and artifice in order to keep the wheels of Hollywood spinning. The creative muse is a fickle mistress throughout Barton Fink, not only to the lead character, but to one resembling a funhouse mirror of William Faulkner, descended into alcoholism and his writing performed by his mistress/secretary.


Deals with the devil do not provide Faustian bargains, there’s no sweet moment of euphoria before the bottom drops out. There is only the bottom dropping out and the creeping rush of encroaching darkness. Not only in the surprise twist with Charlie, Barton’s neighbor in the hotel and a pleasant everyman insurance salesman type that’s also the most likable character in the movie, but in a high-ranking producer and the studio executive that spit rapid-fire insults laced with profanity as they do empty ego-boosting platitudes. Tony Shalhoub is great in a bit part as the producer, but Michael Lerner as the studio head is really playing for the rafters. I mean that as a compliment as he’s a riot of vulgarly wielded power, clearly playing his studio head as a riff on Louis B. Meyer and probably some more modern references behind the scenes.


Of course there’s the bewildering shrug that I meet with the reoccurring image of the woman on the beach only for Barton to meet her in the end. What does it mean? No idea. Frankly, I don’t really care. It made me laugh, and I think the entire point of it was some kind of cosmic joke. It’s almost as if you must take on Barton Fink on an image-by-image basis. Individual scenes clearly throb with deeper meanings while others are merely there to land a joke or provide a character actor a moment to shine.


The thing that ties it all together is an extremely game cast. John Turturro as Barton is overly earnest, completely lacking in self-awareness, and prone to rhapsodizing about his lofty goals with no output or talent to match. Turturro’s a perfect match for the dark comedic tone that the Coen Brothers are striving for throughout. While John Mahoney gets to turn a caricature of William Faulkner into an excuse for mugging, a ridiculous accent, and slapstick. Judy Davis as his secretary/mistress plays everything with an arched eyebrow and wry tone of voice. While John Goodman clearly walks away with best in show for his overly polite, jovial manners masking over monstrous secrets that lead towards the film’s apocalyptic finale.


It is a strange journey, but a highly enjoyable one for me. Some may find the dourness and frankly overall sour pointing towards misanthropic if not nihilistic tone a bit much. Maybe my sense of humor is just that skewed, but I rode out Barton Fink’s wavelength towards the closing credits and had a good time. What does it all? Anything you want it to mean.

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Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 17 October 2017 03:43 (A review of Kagemusha (1980))

If Kagemusha isn’t as daring as Akira Kurosawa’s other samurai epics, like Seven Samurai or Throne of Blood, then it is still a pleasurable jewel of a late master throwing around his considerable artistry and craft. The troubled birth and production doesn’t show (much), and it is an immensely pleasurable experience throughout. It simmers in its weightiness and epic scope, and Kurosawa still manages to pull it off with grace, beauty, and a deft touch that numerous imitators have tried and failed to achieve.


The title refers to a common thief who bears a striking resemblance to a warlord, and he effectively becomes his “shadow warrior,” what kagemusha translates to. This shadow warrior is something a spectral entity, more of an emotional cipher than a fully-realized character for the narrative to pivot around. We do not understand his motivations, nor are we lead to believe that he does either, but we follow him through his descent into a kind of madness and power-grab. Is he possessed by the warlord’s spirit or merely haunted by the warlord’s legacy?


This ambiguity becomes a driving force the latter portions of the film. In fact, a dream sequence can function under either reading of the material. These dream sequences in the third act of the film are the most audacious throughout the entire film as so much of it is a medium shot that takes in the vastness of the surroundings and the numerous players in the frame. They play with perspective and demonstrate our shadow warrior being terrorized and haunted by the warlord’s armor, or maybe he’s slowly being possessed. (Personally, I think he’s cracking up because his identity is being subsumed by the legacy and demands of his role, but plenty of professional critics have argued the other meaning.)


Yet there’s a pervasive irony to much of the middle portion of the film as the warlord’s death means that the thief must become the man, and only a handful of people know the truth. The “shadow warrior” begins to believe his own lie and slowly finds himself wanting to obtain power. The final masterstroke of this thread comes in the climactic battle, one of Kurosawa’s greatest sustained sequences of cinematic pageantry, where the thief dies chasing after the banner and unable to catch it. Not only was this thief never truly a warlord, but he was unable to maintain the illusion and cast out into the wilderness.


It’s a fairly simple plot and it’s only as good as any particular scene, some of which are transcendent and others reveal the break Kurosawa was forced to take between projects. At this point, despite being heralded by the New Hollywood class as a role model and iconoclast artist found funding hard to come by. Four years separated this film from his prior work, and the scenes where Kurosawa’s paintings are clearly adapted are the best. Others show a bit of aching joints, or like watching someone trying to get feeling back into a hand or foot that fell asleep.


None of this means that Kagemusha is a bad film, it is very much not but it is more of a second-shelf Kurosawa work and bettered by its predecessor, Ran. It perhaps colder than some of his greater works, but it’s still a great film. Kurosawa bookends the film with two sequences, one completely quiet that effectively explains the power dynamics at play and the other a bitterly ironic ending note. These two sequences alone are worth the viewing experience, but there’s so many other riches to discover along the way.   

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Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 16 October 2017 04:25 (A review of Carousel (1956))

Call me crazy, but I almost miss the cotton candy fluff of other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals if the alternative is Carousel which presents domestic abuse in the most questionable way imaginable. After all, the lousy main character gets semi-redeemed while his widow and orphaned child spout out that if someone loves you enough that being hit by them doesn’t hurt at all. Cue the heart-swelling music and fade out as we walk out with a knotted stomach when we’re clearly supposed to feel euphoria.


I have no aversion to dark musicals or musicals with thornier subject matter, I absolutely adore the work of Stephen Sondheim after all, but Carousel just doesn’t work for me from top to bottom. Maybe it’s better on the stage, but there’s something deeply “off” about the entire film. A majority of it is structured as a flashback, not a problem, but we never feel the weight or reality of the romance between these characters, major problem. Even worse is how the female lead is stuck in long-suffering, supportive mode with no other characteristics. She gets put through mounds of abuse and personal turmoil, but remains wholesome and pure throughout. The sense of ick is strong here.


Where Carousel excels is through its songs, most obviously in the evergreen “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Shirley Jones’ powerful, emotionally demonstrative voice nails the romanticism and emotional longing in each of her songs, and she’s wonderfully delicate and pretty throughout, which is about all the film asks from her. In contrast, Gordon MacRae has more to do, and rich power that threatens to upend the film routinely. He’s giving a more ornate and realistic performance than the film’s artifice and studio-bound aesthetics can handle.


Perhaps that’s the central conflict of Carousel, a duality of pervading culture tone with a sensibility that is in stark contrast to it. There’s an emotional unease and darkness to Carousel, but it’s presented in glossy, candy-colored veneers like any number of its brethren. Perhaps it’s a noble failure of translation, look at how The King and I from the same year managed its melancholy, or perhaps it’s a consistent scarcity of cinematic ideas, one of the best moments is an extended ballet on the beach that announces itself as something completely different from the rest of the film by its sheer audacity.


Carousel is dour and sour no matter how heart-tugging the score gets or how comically cornball moments like “A Real Nice Clambake” are, that tone and feeling is prevalent. Same with knowing that our leading man is dead, so his eventual death scene is robbed of some of its power as we know he’s coming back down to check on things and try to make them right. It’s hard to engender sympathy for these characters, and Carousel beats us down in demanding that we do instead of earning it.


What keeps it hovering as an average movie musical is the strength of its score and two leading performances. Take away either of these elements and the entire thing would implode. As it remains, it’s an uneasy balancing act that shows its strain repeatedly and much of it doesn’t work.

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The Duke of Burgundy

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 30 September 2017 01:53 (A review of The Duke of Burgundy (2014))

The pastiche exterior and S&M teasing are the enticing bits, the coy titillations to peak your interest and rope you in. Then there’s the bait-and-switch as the power struggle reveals numerous complications and eventually settles into a quieter examination of the sacrifices and struggles involved in sustaining a long-term relationship.


The Duke of Burgundy is a beautiful film in every way, from the costumes to the sets to the thematic elements and performances. Everything about it works, and it all works at an optimal level. It also smartly keeps the eroticism at a low boil, never indulging in potentially exploitative nudity or in shock-value water sports. We know these things are going on, and routinely, but it’s merely a framing device to go further in its explorations of what keeps a couple together.


We meet Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) first, and the first half of the film is glimpsed through her prism, as she’s riding a bike towards a secluded estate. She is the picture of timid and frail European schoolgirl beauty. We think she possesses very little power or sway in this relationship as Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudse) is older, the owner of the house, potentially her employer, and an exacting mistress. It isn’t until roughly the halfway point that we realize just what the truth is.


Evelyn and Cynthia recreate the same day every day, with Evelyn having created the script that must be followed precisely. The S&M mind games, water sports, and humiliations are all based upon Evelyn’s wants and needs, and Cynthia clearly struggles in consistently providing them. These two women obviously love and care for each other a great deal, but one partner is sacrificing herself and her own needs to make the other happy. Trouble is looming and about to hit them with the blunt force of a natural disaster.


It’s extraordinary how something that felt so palpably strange and possibly on the verge of erotic exploitation is so easily redressed as merely a fact of life as it exists for this couple. S&M is a part of their daily life because one partner needs and demands it, and the other recognizes that even though it causes her discomfort sometimes you have to just suck it up and do the thing to make your partner happy. The eventual revolt feels like a natural outgrowth as one partner is sucking up all of the attention and making all of the demands, and the precarious balance that any relationship rests upon is clearly tipping too far one way.


It is here that The Duke of Burgundy proceeds to dig deeper into its material, and the window-dressing of erotic cinema is revealed as just that. These two could just as easily be fighting over the pets, or how one of them loves to go to some dive-joint for brunch every weekend and the other just wants to sleep in and be lazy. Arguments like these, the banalities of life and the friction involved in any two people occupying close quarters, happen with more frequency and urgency in the latter half. Chiara D’Anna makes a complaint about Knudsen’s chewing on nuts too loudly sound like a howling cry of anyone who’s ever snapped at their lover over some banal infraction while really stewing about a deeper problem.


It isn’t just Peter Strickland’s direction that sells this material, but his two lead actresses who deliver performances that feel fully realized and lived in. Our first introductions to them and their dynamic make it seem outré, but the longer we’re with them then the more we can see ourselves reflected in them. They spar, they reconcile, they try to meet each other half way, or go too far in the other direction to stay together and do the hard job of maintaining and strengthening intimacy with each other. Who knows if these two will stick it out for the long haul, but by the end we understand just what they have and why they fight to keep it together. There’s an air of tragedy here, but also one of burning intimacy and a desire to surpass limitations.

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The Best of Roxy Music

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 29 September 2017 08:16 (A review of The Best of Roxy Music)

We begin at the end with Bryan Ferry’s transformation into remote, sphinxlike pop icon complete and work backwards through the droll lounge lizard and end with the cracked out, cynical romantic. The Best of Roxy Music admirably stitches together the two disparate phases of their career with more emphasis placed on the wilder, weirder earlier years than the more easily accessible disco-rock of the later. It’s a bit ingenious to be honest, we listen to them transition from sophisticated pop romantics into some asymmetrical art project.


It doesn’t hurt that The Best of Roxy Music is the essential one-disc collection of their career. Every album is accounted for, three of the non-album singles are here, and a smattering of smartly chosen album tracks make an appearance. More prevalent compilations make the band split their running time with Bryan Ferry’s solo career, as if to argue that Roxy Music was merely a prelude and backing band to his self-created mythology as a pop star.


While this is true up to a point, he was the front man and main songwriter after all, it downplays the unique contributions that guitarist Phil Manzanera, saxophonist Andy Mackay, drummer Paul Thompson made throughout the lifespan of the band. Not to mention Brian Eno’s predominant influence on their first two albums. Roxy Music was a group through and through, and one hell of a unique and original one at that.


They produced a series of singles and albums that transformed romantic language and imagery into a kind of aching art, and surrounded it in music that was prone to extended instrumental breakdowns and freak-outs. It’s impossible to imagine the New Wave scene without their first five albums, and their earliest glam-infused art rock clearly helped pave the way for the punk explosion. Seriously, listen to “Editions of You” from For Your Pleasure and try to tell me that something that barn burning didn’t help clear a path.


All of this is to say that like any truly great “best of” compilation, The Best of Roxy Music makes an authoritative and compelling argument for their place among the greatest bands of their generation, and maybe even of all-time. It’s hard to argue against when you get slammed in quick succession by songs as strong and dominating in their pop luster as “Avalon,” “Angel Eyes,” and “Oh Yeah.” Then we transition into the mutant-pop hooks of songs like “Love is the Drug,” a mission statement for Ferry and the group if there ever was one, and the experimental beauty of “Mother of Pearl.”


There doesn’t appear to be anything essential missing, and arguments for the presence of songs like “In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” “Prairie Rose,” or “Ladytron” would push it past its main objective as a one-stop shop and primer for the band. By no means the lone Roxy Music album you should ever have in your collection, it is a veritable sonic feast none the less. The balance is just right, it makes a cogent argument, and the music is uniformly superb.


This is a great jumping off point, and from here I would suggest checking out their first five studio albums and Avalon. Only two (Manifesto, Flesh + Blood) of their eight studio albums are mediocre, everything else is a delirious combination of the avant-garde, fashion, glamour, heartbreak, romance, kitsch, and sleek pop music.


DOWNLOAD: “Virginia Plain,” “Both Ends Burning,” “Pyjamarama”

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Flesh + Blood

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 29 September 2017 04:29 (A review of Flesh & Blood)

It’s not that the reconvened Roxy Music is bad, it’s just that they sound so generic and tired in comparison to the glorious cracked art-school rejects they were just a few short years prior. While Country Life and Siren were clearly pointing the direction towards a more coherent pop sound they still managed to retain the Roxy Music personality. Manifesto was the first chink in the armor, and Flesh + Blood is probably their most lifeless album as they strike poses like they’re a Chic cover band throughout.


That doesn’t make Flesh + Blood a bad album, it merely means that any contemporary artist could have recorded these songs and the results would have been much the same. Their progeny like Duran Duran could have easily produced “Same Old Scene.” There’s a distinct lack of artistic imagination at play here. Radio-friendly disco-rock is not a bad thing, look at clear standout and well-known single “Over You” when it’s done right, but Flesh + Blood is a by and large anemic affair; too glossy a production smothers the band, a bored vocal here and noncommittal guitar solo there. It’s a little hard to imagine that this is the same group that blessed us with songs like “Both Ends Burning” and “Out of the Blue.”


Their next album and swan song, Avalon, would find the perfect balance of this new direction, sending the band out to pasture on a high creative and career achievement. While that album sounds decadent and luxurious, Flesh + Blood sounds sleepy and tired. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where and what went wrong in the studio, but you can hear it. For all of the mighty swagger of “Oh Yeah” and their interesting reworking of “In the Midnight Hour” there’s the inertness of “No Strange Delight” and “Eight Miles High.” Maybe they just needed to get this one out of their system in order to get to the beautiful Avalon.    


DOWNLOAD: “Over You”

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Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 29 September 2017 04:29 (A review of Manifesto)

There was a four year gap between their last album, Siren, and this reunion effort, one that suspiciously sounds closer to a Bryan Ferry solo than a Roxy Music project. Siren was a coherent and enthralling merger of their pop aspirations and their art-rock freak-outs. “Love is the Drug” was enough of a manifesto of Bryan Ferry’s lounge-lizard persona to not require a follow-up called Manifesto, especially if it lacks the specificity and vibrancy of that self-created personality.


Manifesto’s not bad, just generically listenable. There’s a handful of good songs surrounded by a lot of forgettable ones. This is clearly Ferry in transition as his pop persona began as the cool, cynical romantic, then transferred into a lounge-lizard with aspirations of the jet set lifestyle, and wound-up as a member of the glitterati and something of an emotional sphinx projecting detached love and lust at a remove. These growing pains are evident in the album’s inconsistency.


While this transition into disco-ready pop music maestros leaves Manifesto as one of their more easily accessible albums it also has the unintended effect of being an experience you won’t repeat too often. It’s an entertaining and pleasant experience, but I come to Roxy Music looking to be challenged and enjoying their weirdness, their severe humor, their excessive commitment to glamour. “Manifesto” is something of a false start as it plays like the weirdness of prior albums will still be present, perhaps a bit subdued but still accounted for. Then things go generically New Wave with “Trash” and the rest of the album is uneven from there.


What I miss most is the melodrama and emotional intensity of albums like Stranded and Country Life. You could hear the cracks in that self-created mythology, and the intensity of his passions, both lusty and romantic. Manifesto is oddly chaste in comparison, but not their worst album. After all, “Angel Eyes” and “Dance Away” are two indelible moments of pop artistry that successfully revive Ferry’s persona and clearly indicate where it’s going by the time we reach Avalon and his massive solo singles like “Slave to Love.” Roxy Music still have ideas and clear dreams of pop dominance, but it would take a few more tries before this incarnation of the band would hit it out of the park.  


DOWNLOAD: “Dance Away”

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A Night in Old Mexico

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 29 September 2017 03:55 (A review of A Night in Old Mexico)

A star vehicle in the worst sense in that nothing else matters but the central performance, not the litany of narrative pileups nor the incoherent tone or the shaking supporting characters. Nothing else matters but Robert Duvall chewing the scenery as an ornery old bastard. A Night in Old Mexico is best when it simply rests its camera on Duvall’s weathered face and cantankerous persona.


A Night in Old Mexico opens with a Dylan Thomas poem, and you know exactly which one it is. This lack of subtlety from the opening frame is a warning shot. Rage Duvall’s character will, against everyone and everything. This is Rebel with a Cause and Life Alert. We open with his character losing his land, reuniting with his grandson, and traveling down to Mexico to die. Along the way there’s some purloined money, drug dealers and gangsters, a little bit of age inappropriate romance, and enough narrative contrivance to make even soap opera writers think it’s all a bit much.


The only interesting supporting player is Angie Capeda’s stripper that gets roped into a chaste romance with Duvall. She comes into the film with a bang, chastising the drunken, lecherous boors who demand she take her top off while she’s trying to sing, and then quickly shrinks back into a narratively tidy “girl – romance object” box for the remainder of the film. Capeda’s trying to build something out of this stripper of not-quite-gold, but she can only go so far with the thinly written role. She does better than Jeremy Irvine’s limp noodle grandson. He sure is pretty, but that’s about all of the dynamic he’s allowed to express, and he can’t hold a candle to Duvall’s depth and breadth of emotional range and vulnerability.


This is a tall tale with a nice sense of atmosphere, but everything bows down to Duvall and his character. Nothing else deserves development as this is but a towering monument and reminder of what a rich actor he is. He makes the trip down to Old Mexico a mixed blessing.

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Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 29 September 2017 02:42 (A review of Lullaby (2014))

It may sound heartless to knock a film about a man dying of cancer asking his family to respect his wishes to die, but Lullaby treats every single scene and character interaction as an excuse for volatile explosions and never modulates. There’s also the problem of the film taking symbolic gestures at literal face-values, like a daughter filing an injunction against her father’s wishes only to be told that she must present a compelling argument for his remaining alive. There’s an overabundance of moments like this in Lullaby that smother the more emotionally candid moments and tip the film towards the maudlin.


At least Lullaby is stacked with an impeccable cast. Many of the players are stranded with little to do, like Amy Adams’ supportive ex-girlfriend, Jennifer Hudson’s motor-mouthed nurse with a penchant for expletives, and Terrence Howard as an emotionally invested doctor. They do fine with the material, but the material doesn’t ask much of actors of their pedigree and caliber. It does offer better roles for Anne Archer as the grieving wife and family peace-keeper, Richard Jenkins as the dying man begging his family to respect his wishes, and Jessica Barden as a dying teenager. The three of them could easily beg the audience for sympathy, or they could turn on the waterworks and demand crocodile tears from the audience, but they play coy scenes of heavy sentiment with unexpected edge. Barden in particular knows that she’s got the character that’s easiest to feel sorry for, but she never asks us to, and occasionally reveals moments of bratty behavior and snark that feel typical to a teenager and forsakes playing her character as a saintly wunderkind.


Hovering above it all is Garrett Hedlund in a performance that belongs in a better movie. Lullaby fails to make his estrangement and bitterness towards his father believable, but Hedlund tears into the material in such a way that we almost buy it all. The narrative never gives him a tether for why or where this dissatisfaction comes from, but he manages to create a believably layered performance in spite of the limitations. He makes the material better than it really is, and he juggles the anguish, repentance, and the ever-shifting familial dynamics with aplomb. If only Lullaby had risen to his level we would really have something special here. As it is, it’s a bit of a schmaltzy euthanasia story that’s emotional manipulative in the worst of ways.    

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The Double

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 29 September 2017 02:25 (A review of The Double)

Here is a film that I admired more than I enjoyed or embraced. It clearly wears its influences too loudly with Brazil looming largely over every single frame. The Double suffers in the unintentional comparison, but it borrows the oppressive production design from that film while forsaking the human qualities. There’s also a sideways sense of humor that recalls the work of David Lynch, but again, it’s more obvious influence sleeve-wearing than it is successful adaption of said style.


The worst problem with The Double is the lead character of Simon, a diminished little creep that practically wreaks of Nice Guy™. You know the type, and if you don’t, ask the women in your life. He creepily moves into the apartment complex across the street from his object of obsession (Mia Wasikowska), goes through her trash several times, and still somehow gets off easily by ending up with the girl and besting his doppelgänger. Simon is a meek little man who can’t seem to string a single sentence together without an apology, yet he also projects a simpering rage that he’s not been given what he should have. Much of this renders The Double as a beta-male tantrum, so your mileage may vary at the various humiliations and jokes at his expense.


Where The Double succeeds is as an excuse for Jesse Eisenberg to strut his stuff as an actor. He has to play two extremes in personality, and both of the performances are smartly textured and fully realized. Granted, Eisenberg as an arrogant prick is probably not much of a stretch if you’ve read his essays in the New Yorker, but he still nails the dichotomy and tension between the two characters. His version of James, the arrogant half to Simon’s meek one, is like his performance in The Social Network gone broad, big, and for dark laughs.


And while the film clearly is heavily indebted to the works of Lynch and Gilliam, it still looks quite lovely. The world of the film is a strange other, a hodge-podge of various timelines buttressing against each other, and a heavy dose of grim and grit slathered over everything. At times the world is so dark that the Catch 22-esque bits of circuitous and satirical humor are the lone bright spots in this world.


The tone of icy detachment is suffocating, and eventually proves to be an arm’s length towards embracing the film in a more profound way. The characters are held at a distance, and this could have been deeper both thematically and emotionally if the film was interested in exploring the isolation and exhaustive loneliness that’s clearly the hallmarks of this world, but it’s not. The Double is a gloomy march towards an extended fit when it could have easily been a raging lament.

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