'I've never met anyone like James'

Hauntingly compelling, hilarious and unsettling in equal measure – Richard Ayoade’s dark comedy The Double is a doppelgänger drama that makes up for it’s lack of direction in plot with a fantastic central performance, unique moments of comedic genius and a deliciously disconcerting soundtrack.

Set in a dystopian not-so-distant-future, we meet timid, lonely Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) who is overlooked at work, scorned by his friends and ignored by his love interest. To make matters worse, his George Orwell-esque office employs new guy James – who happens to be Simon’s exact physical double, even down to the clothes. But physicality is where the similarities end – James is everything Simon wants to be – confident, charismatic and irresistible to women. As James’ dark side becomes more and more apparent, Simon begins to realise that he can’t allow James to take over his life.

The soundtrack compliments the tone of the film perfectly. Discordant tones, electrical interference, footsteps that continue after people have stopped walking, all pervade the narrative to create an utterly unsettling vibe that merges with the deadpan humour to give a real darkness to the comedy and to make you feel uncomfortable about laughing. 

It is no easy task to play two completely opposing characters with equal conviction – but Eisenberg manages it. Simon is meek, unconfident and pathetic – James is wild, arrogant and dangerous – you believe in both of them entirely. The way Eisenberg manipulates body language, even down to the minutiae like the differing gaits and subtle expressions, is a testament to his incredible commitment here. He pulls it off, and carries the film through moments that threatened to lose the direction of the story.

Mia Wasikowska is cast in a slightly thankless role. She is good and her deadpan cruelty to Simon is perfectly acted – but I’m left feeling that we could have known more about her. She is little more than a device, a love-interest to give the two Eisenbergs something to play off, the film would benefit from giving her more space to develop.

Ayoade pays homage to a multitude of influences in this film. We see hints of George Orwell, Orsen Wells, David Lynch and even Fight Club. Some critics have pulled him up for this, saying that just because Ayoade has seen a lot of movies, that doesn’t make him a good director. I disagree with this. The hommages are well thought-out, relevant and still allow the film to create its own unique voice. Ayoade has gone much further than imitation here.

Paranoia, surveillance and schizophrenia are crucial themes throughout the film. We’ve seen these themes before, but Ayoade and Eisenberg along with some fantastic cameos and a spirited cast, breathe new life into them.

OUT OF TEN: SEVEN 

'You have to behave… 'cause they will kill you.'

David McKenzie’s immersive prison drama Starred Up is both startlingly brutal and endearingly warm. Unforgettable performances from Jack O’Connell and the rest of the cast leads this to be one of the best UK dramas I’ve seen in years.

Teenage Eric (O’Connell) is incarcerated for violent crimes and we are immediately plunged into his world, as he is strip-searched and processed to begin his sentence. As he squats over a mirror while guards inspect his anus – his impenetrably placid expression speaks volumes from the environment he’s come from and his lack of surprise or concern at his situation. His familiarity with this whole procedure is unsettling.

We soon learn that Eric’s Dad (Ben Mendelsohn) is a lifer at the same prison – adding a family dynamic that intertwines seamlessly with the all the different hierarchical nuances of prison life. Hierarchy is of vital importance – everyone is somewhere on the food chain, including the guards and those in positions of supposed authority. McKenzie deftly addresses the issue of institutionalised corruption and the inextricability of power with race and social standing.

The film is addressing the issue of what it means to be a man, and the different relationships between men. McKenzie does well to highlight one of the central juxtapositions of prison life – the battle between masculine power and emasculation. Throughout the film we see some incredible displays of traditionally ‘masculine’ traits of violence, strength and courage – but alongside this we see the most intrinsically emasculating scenarios - Mendelsohn being hosed down in his cell, and a homoerotic relationship between Mendelsohn and his cellmate, which challenges the traditional ideals of the ‘masculine’. The violence and outbursts from the prisoners can be seen as partly a reaction to this emasculation and a desperate attempt to regain a sense of their own self.

This film is an attack on the British prison system. We see corruption at every level and the officers actively try to squash attempts at reforming Eric – just as he’s beginning to make headway. Even the well-meaning prison therapist (Rupert Friend) can’t hack it. He is set up early on as a redeeming figure and the audience is led to believe that he will be Eric’s saviour. The fact that even he is bullied out of his position and ultimately gives up on Eric highlights the complete hopelessness of the situation.

O’Connell gives an incredible performance – his physicality is astounding and his erratic flips between violence and vulnerability is captivating. The pairing of O’Connell and Mendelsohn is brilliant and the development of their relationship and venting of mutual frustrations is moving and just addictive to watch. The final scene was a disappointment only because I could’ve watched at least another 30 minutes.

Is this a realistic portrayal of British prison life? It’s impossible for me to really judge from the vantage point of my middle-class upbringing. But McKenzie does well not to glorify the lives of the prisoners. We close on a shot of a revolving door – a fitting symbol of the futility and inevitability of the cycle of prison and reform.

OUT OF TEN: EIGHT POINT FIVE

'When was the last time you touched someone?'

I didn’t think it was possible to be simultaneously profoundly disturbed and mind-numbingly bored. Jonathan Glazer’s bold adaptation of Michael Faber’s novel Under The Skin manages to achieve this strange feat.

Scarlett Johansson plays an alien roaming the streets of Glasgow, preying on men to seduce – and there’s a lot of nudity. On the surface this film has all the makings of being a wildly different, thought-provoking indie film. And it nearly is. But the sickeningly long shots and repetitive extreme close-ups of blank facial expressions leave the film veering dangerously close to the self-indulgent end of the indie film spectrum.

The stark, bright lights and vacuum of sound in the opening scene immediately sets up that this is going to be difficult viewing, as the audience were forced to hold their breath and freeze mid-popcorn-crunch in the uncomfortable silence. And this deliciously unsettling feeling perseveres throughout. We see the world through alien Johansson’s eyes – unheeding of human emotion, unaffected by death and the cries of a child – we are left with the sense that the wider universe is indifferent to the plight of humanity.

Johansson’s purpose on Earth is difficult to decipher. She roams the streets of a depressingly bleak Glasgow picking up men with impenetrable Glaswegian accents before taking them back to her lair where she seduces them before ‘trapping’ them, naked, in a sort of fluid below her floor – where they float, seemingly forever. The helpless, naked, floating bodies of her victims are reminiscent of the womb and a pre-birth state. It’s as though Johansson is reducing these men to their basest human desires of sexuality – she seems to be attempting to understand the very root of what it means to be a man, and her discoveries imply that there isn’t much that lies beneath the skin of her victims.

There are moments of pure terror – worse than any horror film I’ve seen in years. The moment when one of Johansson’s floating victims suddenly disintegrates to nothing but skin before floating grotesquely away in the fluid sends shivers up the spine – and the deadened reactions to a baby’s screams after he’s abandoned on a beach following a family tragedy literally turned my blood cold. But these moments of intense emotive reaction are just too few and far between. The long, empty space between emotional peaks left you feeling flat overall, which is a shame when there was such profoundly disturbing potential. 

A hugely redeeming quality of the film is Mica Levi’s enchanting score. The music doesn’t do what you want it to. The discordant sound works together with an enormous array of otherworldly sound effects to create a sense of cohesion and hold together a film that is threatening to split at the seams. Levi works hard to build suspense, crescendo and changes in tone that give the film the narrative that the linearity of the actual story is lacking.

The most interesting element in he film is the transformation in Johansson’s central character. Through her sexual encounters she appears to be compromised or weakened by a sympathy for the human race and a sexual curiosity. But this sympathy leads to her ultimate downfall as she encounters the darker side of human sexuality and without her emotionless façade is left defenceless. If this isn’t a comment on the destructive effect of human relationships and sexuality then I don’t know what it is. 

This film is worth a watch for the provoking ideas, beautiful score and interesting take on the sci-fi genre. But don’t expect traditional storytelling and don’t expect much in the acting department from Johansson.

OUT OF TEN: FIVE

'How do you kill someone in a crowded plane and get away with it?'

Jaume Collet-Serra’s action thriller is as bad as you think it’s going to be. I have a secret penchant for disaster films – especially ones involving planes. I was also enticed by the somewhat retro whodunit structure of the film, where you’re led through an enormous cast and have to battle your way through a forest of red herrings to find the perpetrator. But sadly, given the farcical implausibility of the plot coupled with lazy writing and dire acting, I couldn’t even find an ironic guilty pleasure in Liam Neeson’s latest flop.

To say the plot is implausible would be a monumental understatement. It’s utterly ludicrous. Firstly; an Air Marshall who’s afraid of flying. Ok. A fifty-plus Air Marshall who’s afraid of flying who can navigate an intoxicating mix of gravity and air pressure and kick-ass mid-air in a ludicrous climactic shoot-out. Erm ok. A plane that can land without any casualties whatsoever after a bomb went off at 18,000 feet, ripping an enormous hole in the fuselage? Just no.

I’m all for the suspension of disbelief, but context is important for this to actually work. Fantastical and heightened realities have to assert their place in non-reality from the outset. But Collet-Serra took pains to place us in a realistic setting, on a flight that could happen to any of us. It’s this attempt at realism that makes the film so laughable.

The point that Collet-Serra is trying to make is one that’s worthy of discussion: that America’s post-9/11 security is a lie and a false sense of safety has lulled people into complacency. But the execution is so poor as to completely undermine any real message. The point is lost in a scrappy, directionless plot that culminates in an unsatisfactory climax.

The cast had some surprising gems – Julienne Moore and Lupita Nyong’o, which initially gave the impression that the acting may compensate for the poor story. Not so. Moore was passable in the role of watered-down love interest – but Nyong’o was painful to watch. After her impeccable performance in 12 Years A Slave that earned her a well-deserved Oscar, it pained me to see her in this stilted, awkward performance, sporting an Oliver-esque Cockney accent. It was all very strange.

Collet-Serra missed a serious trick with this film. I was drawn to watch it because of the brilliant concept – mid-air terror is a morbid fascination for many of us, and Collet-Serra didn’t utilize this innate fear. He completely ignored the question of what it might feel like to be aboard a plane where people are being murdered every twenty minutes. No-one appears overly concerned about any of the events, which completely diffused the tension.

Even if bad disaster films are your guilty pleasure, you probably won’t like this. Give it a swerve. 

OUT OF TEN: THREE 

'You seem like a person but you're just a voice in a computer.'

Spike Jonze’s melancholy, futuristic rom-com Her is a beautiful and soulful look at human relationships. The intensity of the performances and the precision of the direction draws you into the centre of a romantic relationship which forces you to question what it means to be human and what it is that we really need from our relationships.

Our hero, Theodore Twombly [Joaquin Phoenix] works as a writer at Beautiful Handwritten Letters, where he constructs intimate and personal love letters for his clients to send to their loved ones. It’s a sign of the times. At some point in the not-too-distant future, people seem to have forgotten how to communicate with each other and our increasingly dependent on machines. In scenes not too different to what you would observe today, we see throngs of people walking the streets, engaging with their personal inner-ear computer systems – utterly oblivious to one another. The logical next step is that people would begin to form relationships with these machines as they advance to mimic human development and behaviour.

The concept is decidedly creepy. Falling in love with a disembodied voice, the odd ‘phone sex’ that Theodore and his OS system girlfriend Samantha [Scarlett Johansson] engage in, the complete detachment from human interaction – but the overwhelming feeling of this film is warmth. Despite the lack of physical contact between Theodore and Samantha, their relationship makes you feel warm. You delight in Theodore’s adorable excitement and romantic tendencies and in Samantha’s tentative admissions as the pair grow closer. You really are rooting for them. In comparison to the real human relationships in the film, Amy Adams and her anal, self-righteous partner, Theodore and Samantha are the enviable couple – the closest, the ones who are doing it right. This speaks volumes about our preconceptions about romantic relationships – and the fact that warmth and love isn’t wrapped up in the aesthetic, or even the tangible.

It isn’t just the pairing of Phoenix and Johansson that radiates warmth in this film. The colour scheme created by Jonze is just delicious to look at. With hazy, muted pastels everywhere you turn from the costumes to the washed-out orange skyline, the look of the film envelops you in a romantic haze that puts an entirely original spin on the representations of the future that we’re used to seeing. Rather than the cold, metallic image of the future that’s synonymous with so much sci-fi, Jonze has created a future that is, although melancholy, quietly hopeful and sweetly peaceful at it’s core. Far from being a warning against the rise of the machines, Jonze is presenting a world in which there is a viable alternative to human relationships – and there is really a lack of judgement as to whether this is a positive or negative thing.

It was too long. The dreamy, endless shots of landscapes and a thoughtful Theodore that captivated me initially became slightly tired towards the end. I had to fight slightly to keep my engagement towards the end – which was a shame. It didn’t need to be that long, and would have benefitted by cutting 30 minutes to allow you to stay in the state of hazy, romantic bliss that the film initially creates.  

OUT OF TEN: SEVEN POINT FIVE