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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Ayoade’

Martin Scorsese, esteemed producer, director, writer, and general elder statesman of the cinematic medium, caused a bit of a kerfuffle in 2019 when he declared that the films of Marvel Studios’ meta-franchise were ‘not cinema’, likening them rather to theme parks – presumably on the grounds that they are simply a commercial undertaking, part of an endless stream of franchised product.

Well, everyone’s entitled to an opinion, of course, but the great man’s complaint seems a little peculiar given some of the projects he has lent his name to as executive producer recently. The interview about Marvel was released virtually on the same day that Joker came out, while right now Scorsese’s cachet is being used to promote yet another example of a sequel intended to capitalise on the success of its forebear: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Part II.

Well, of course I jest, albeit probably quite feebly – but there is something distinctly odd about a film which was so clearly meant for the art house getting a follow-up like this. I asked for a ticket to Revenge of the Souvenir when I turned up at the cinema and the chap on the counter didn’t bat an eyelid at it, but then they are probably used to me there. Nevertheless – obscure art house darlings don’t get sequels. Do they?

It seems they do. For those who missed it, the first Souvenir film tells the story of a young English film-school student named Julia (played by Honor Swinton Byrne), who gets a bit distracted from her studies by her relationship with Anthony, a slightly older man working in the Foreign Office, especially the fact that he turns out to be a heroin addict who (spoiler alert) ends up dying of an overdose before the end of the film. I should add that this story is told in the most restrained and unsensational manner imaginable, with scenes going off at various tangents and much attention given to Julia’s startlingly posh mum (Tilda Swinton) and other relatives.

Nothing about this screamed fertile material for a follow-up, but in some ways this hits all the targets for a good sequel: all the key creative personnel return, and the style and storyline from the first film continue seamlessly: you could probably edit the two films together into one three-hour-plus epic with the join barely showing (but I for one doubt I would have the stamina for that).

Describing the film in terms of the things that happen in the plot is probably a bit misleading, as – and here again it closely resembles the first film – it doesn’t so much feel like a story being told, as much as things happening in front of the camera in a fairly off-hand manner. But: we find Julia still coming to terms with Anthony’s death, spending time with her parents and his. The time of her graduation project from film school approaches. She enjoys a brief romantic entanglement with a fellow student.

Eventually the film settles down to focus on the film project, which – it slowly becomes clear – is an impressionistic retelling of the story of her relationship with Anthony. The school tutors are initially unimpressed by the half-finished script, and Julia is informed she can’t expect their support. (A gob-smacking scene ensues where Julia casually asks her mum for £10,000 to help out with financing the film, and Mumsy naturally agrees.) Actors are cast, sets built, and a not-entirely-trouble-free shoot gets underway.

So: The Souvenir was an autobiographical film. The Souvenir Part II is an autobiographical film about the making of an autobiographical film – perhaps The Souvenir² would have been a more appropriate title. The film is as recursive and self-referential as it sounds, but there is something strangely mesmerising about seeing another version of the events of the first film play out, not to mention a weird tension between the film’s careful naturalism and its awareness of its own identity as a piece of fiction – Julia’s own flat and the mock-up of it that appears in the film-within-the-film (which is, naturally, also called The Souvenir) are obviously both represented by the same set.

That said, the pace isn’t any quicker this time around, and if you’re not quite on board with the notion of a film which exists more as a piece of sensory and aesthetic art than as a narrative this probably isn’t the film for you. There are more obvious incidental pleasures, I should say – chief amongst them the reappearance of Richard Ayoade as temperamental auteur Patrick, given to shouting things like ‘You’re forcing me to have a tantrum!’ I really wanted Ayoade to be in the movie more, and found myself wondering why he’s never had a lead role in a movie; he certainly has the presence for it.

As the film went on I found myself pondering the prospects of a Souvenir Part III and what it might involve – an autobiographical film about someone making an autobiographical film about an autobiographical film, perhaps. In the end, however, there is a very definite sense of a conclusion taking shape – the fictional version of The Souvenir is completed and screened, and the different layers of metafictionality begin to collapse into one another. From what we see of the fictional movie, it looks like a pretentious load of old cobblers, but in a strikingly different way from the ‘real’ Souvenir; nevertheless, both feature Julia as the lead, rather than the character cast as her. Early in the film she is given a line of dialogue about her desire to make films that represent the imagination brought to life, rather than a straightforward recreation of life as it is lived – for most of the movie this feels like an ironic joke, given how naturalistic and low-key most of the action is – but Julia’s own film holds true to this. And, perhaps, the conclusion of Souvenir Part II suggests that Joanna Hogg’s films are equally works of the imagination. It certainly has all the strengths and weaknesses of the original film, but its subtle blending of different layers of fiction with reality gives it a depth and a puzzle-box quality all of its own. For many people it will doubtless just be a rather introspective film about posh people being pretentious together. But I suspect it’s a very good rather introspective film about posh people being pretentious together.

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At the moment I seem to be seeing odd resonances between films everywhere, something which is all the more striking when the films themselves are rather different. For instance, I have discovered that The Raid 2 started life several years before the first film, being put on hold while the film-makers tackled a less ambitious project. Meanwhile, John Michael McDonough’s current Calvary is a follow-up to his 2011 film The Guard, and features many of the same performers.

I’ve seen both of these films in the last week, along with Richard Ayoade’s The Double. The Double is a follow-up to Ayoade’s 2011 film Submarine, featuring many of the same performers, but was actually the director’s first choice of debut project, being put on hold in favour of something less demanding. See what I mean? All right, it’s not quite Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but even so.

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Based on a story by Dostoyevsky, The Double is one of those films which acts as a magnet for certain types of comment. One day, no doubt, it will be possible to write about this film without mentioning Brazil or using the word Kafkaesque, but that day has clearly not yet dawned.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James, a much-misused office drone in a ghastly dystopia located somewhere between the 1950s and the 1980s. His talents are unrecognised, his work is underappreciated, and he’s not getting anywhere with the photocopier girl from work (Mia Wasikowska), either. But then a strange sequence of events culminates in the appearance of a new guy at work – his name is James Simon, and he appears to be Simon’s exact physical duplicate (although, weirdly, no-one seems to notice this). The two are initially friendly, but then the newcomer starts trying to take over Simon’s life and supplant him in the meagre position he’s managed to reach…

As you can tell, this is a surreal, non-naturalistic story, and Ayoade has made the logical choice to set it in a bizarre, non-naturalistic milieu. This is not our world, nor does it pretend to be – but it does bear a striking resemblance to the world of Brazil, with its bulbous ducting, low-tech computers and acres of concrete urban wasteland. I’m not sure whether this is a conscious homage or not; the similarities are just to bit too close for the idea of it being coincidental to really convince. I suspect Ayoade was working with a lower budget than Terry Gilliam, and in any case he’s not quite in the same league as a visual stylist, and so the film is less engaging to look at than Brazil itself was.

In fact, the general look and feel of The Double is much more reminiscent of a whole slew of other British movies from the early 80s, most of them comedies or borderline fantasies: this is the kind of off-the-wall project I can imagine George Harrison putting his money behind back when Handmade Films was a going concern. You may recall the somewhat variable success rate of Handmade productions, and indeed for a while I was starting to think that Ayoade had embarked upon a meticulous attempt at a pastiche of bad British film-making from thirty years ago.

The problem is that the whole thing, while immaculately designed and photographed, is just a bit too detached from reality to really engage the viewer. The tone of it is a little questionable too: if it’s meant to be a black comedy, it’s not really funny enough, and if it’s meant to be a drama (or perhaps even a horror fantasy), it’s not quite dark or extreme enough – there are potential depths of frustration, isolation and paranoia here that the film never manages to access. The fact that, by the time the climax arrives, the film seems rather more concerned with visual style than plot coherence is a problem too.

On the other hand, it would be remiss of me not to say that Ayoade is clearly a talented director, and that the look of the film is not entirely unimpressive. The Double is not a complete failure, and much of the credit for this must go to Jesse Eisenberg, who gives a technically brilliant pair of performances as the strange twins at the heart of the story. Eisenberg is such a distinctive performer that it sometimes seems that people struggle to find roles that do his talent justice – too often he’s just typecast as The Geeky Guy (it will be interesting to see if his forthcoming turn as Lex Luthor in Batman Vs Superman will fall into this category). At least in The Double he gets a chance to show more of his range. It’s much more his film than anyone else’s, but Mia Wasikowska is fine as the love interest, and there are nice, if mainly brief, appearances by the principal cast of Submarine in supporting roles (mainly Yasmin Paige and Noah Taylor).

The Double, appropriately enough, is a film which has a striking similarity to quite a number of other well-known films. Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite managed to replicate their quality. There is a lot to admire about this film, and Richard Ayoade is clearly not one of those people who only had one good film in them – but the fact remains that I found The Double a lot easier to admire than to actually like or enjoy.

 

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It may well be the case that, with the benefit of hindsight, the comedy output of the UK network Channel 4 in the late 90s and early 2000s will be recognised as an extraordinary hothouse for cinematic talent. The success of Simon Pegg, Ricky Gervais and their associates – by far the majority of whom rose to fame on Four in that period – is ongoing and impressive. Joe Cornish, one of the creators of The Adam and Joe Show, has recently completed Attack the Block, an SF thriller that already has a tremendous buzz about it. And, perhaps most startling of all, Richard Ayoade has written and directed Submarine, one of the most distinctive and impressive movies I’ve seen in a long time.

Ayoade, to me at least, is most familiar as geek extraordinaire Moss from The IT Crowd and Dean Learner from Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. Submarine is not remotely like either of these programmes, being a coming-of-age story – a combination of drama and jet-black comedy that’s tonally somewhere between Donnie Darko, Gregory’s Girl, and Napoleon Dynamite.

Craig Roberts plays Oliver, a teenager growing up in a town on the Welsh coast, at some point in a deliberately indeterminate past (pedants will have a field day). Oliver’s father (Noah Taylor) is a marine biologist and failed Open University presenter, while his mother (Sally Hawkins) has an unrewarding office job. Despite his massive gaucheness and general inability to recognise basic emotional truths, Oliver’s attempts to impress eczema-prone temptress Jordana (a revelatory Yasmin Paige) are actually successful, and the two embark on a relationship which they agree is strictly to be non-romantic and unsentimental. But Oliver’s attention is distracted from his girlfriend: his parents are having a tough time, and things are not helped by the appearance of an old flame from his mother’s past: leather-trousered psychic guru Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine)…

What Submarine captures brilliantly is that moment in life when you have – to all intents and purposes – mature faculties, and the capacity for adult emotions, but a complete lack of the life-experience necessary to let you cope with them. It’s about attempting to be a grown-up, and then completely cocking it up. I found so much of it to be almost painfully familiar from my own adolescence: Ayoade’s script captures the awkwardness, the casual, unthinking cruelty, the moments of irresistible emotion, and above all the monumental self-absorption of being a teenager.

One of the things about being in your teens is that every single experience can feel like something epic and life-changing and utterly central to your being, when (of course) it’s almost always nothing of the sort. Submarine manages to communicate this, telling what’s ultimately a rather banal story with such style and confidence and wit that it does seem to be of much greater import than it probably is. This makes the film rather difficult to review effectively, but still.

What could have been a fairly cosy and nostalgic comedy is lifted to another level entirely by Richard Ayoade’s command of the camera and some beautiful cinematography. And this absolutely isn’t a cosy film, although I did laugh out loud throughout it. The humour is distinctly strange and very dark – one moment sees Oliver, with the authentically twisted logic of a teenager, deciding to help Jordana cope with a chronic illness in her family by poisoning her dog – and the whole thing is ruthlessly underplayed by the entire cast. Craig Roberts and Yasmin Paige essentially carry the film and deliver a couple of – if there’s any justice – star-making performances. (I spent most of the film wondering why Paige seemed vaguely familiar before seeing her name in the credits and realising I had seven hours of her on DVD already – she’s almost unrecognisable from her stint in Sarah Jane.)

I suppose if I had to make criticisms of Submarine, it would be that the film tarries just little too long in its closing stages, that at times its confidence and style come very close to becoming outright smug pretentiousness, and that there isn’t quite enough Paddy Considine in it. But this is to quibble: Submarine is quite possibly my favourite film of the year so far, and it’s practically a scandal that in some parts of the UK it’s only on the art house circuit. Richard Ayoade has made a film with a genuinely cinematic vision, that manages to be, superficially, completely restrained, and yet at the same time deeply moving as well as very funny.  Highly recommended.

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