Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Double Take (2009, Gimonprez)

Rating: ***

Less than revelatory, yet far from inconsequential, Johan Gimonprez’s Double Take (2009) is an exquisite mesh-up of Alfred Hitchcock, Cold War, hot coffee, and a (redundant) semblance of a sociological lecture. Equally skillful with found footage as he is with found metaphors, Gimonprez thus made his own Atomic Café (1982), mixing real and imagined dread and their respective media representations to an effect that’s not as focused as Atomic Café was, but still manages to hold interest.

After the brief and telling introduction – in which Sir Alfred’s real voice, consecutively mimicked (to perfection) by actor Mark Perry is heard discussing the nature of McGuffin – we are introduced to a meandering structure that mixes four basic levels: (1) Hitchcock’s own showmanship, as recorded in numerous TV and movie-trailer appearances, (2) the Cold War, unraveling via TV coverage of its main events from 1957 to 1963, (3) an interview with an Alfred Hitchcock lookalike, (4) and a contrived fictional narrative – developed from Tom McCarthy’s story – of the 1962-Hitchcock meeting his 1980-double in a hotel room.

Close scrutiny of what J. Hoberman nicknamed the world’s dream life – as brought to life by TV coverage of news, which transformed politics into a cliffhanger-show, premiering each day on a screen near your couch – is what makes Gimonprez’s movie fun to watch. However versed may you be in Hitchcock, at some point or another you’re bound to mistake a clip from his movie for a piece of news coverage – or vice versa (it happened to me with the opening image of Topaz [1969], which is used here to illustrate growing tensions between US and Cuba).

For a work that’s as overtly obsessed with doubles and duality, the film is rather single-minded in its narrative arc (fragments of literal-minded commentary popping up on screen don’t help). Still, at its best, Double Take is a fascinating work, paying homage to the man who defined screen fantasy in all its ambiguous – and lethal – whole.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Adam & Paul (2004, Abrahamson)

Rating: ***1/2


Shared addiction breeds a special kind of fraternity. Perpetually centered on the ever-desired substance, drug-buddies seem to act in perfect sync with one another, almost as if they were reading each other’s minds. This symbiotic relationship makes a great material for comedy: hence Up in Smoke (1978) and Strange Brew (1983). But Lenny Abrahamson’s great Adam & Paul (2004) manages to see through the comedy and gets to show the devastating despair that fuels its characters. Abrahamson’s feat in this movie is, in a way, to see double: the comedy doesn’t serve as an intro for the drama, and the latter doesn’t serve as the “truth” undermining the former’s status. Comedy and despair coexist in this strange and beautiful movie – they don’t merely show up by turns.

Adam (Mark O’Halloran) and Paul (Tom Murphy), a pair of Dublin junkies, are on the hunt for some heroin. It’s exactly one month ago that their best friend O.D.’d, and by the end of the movie the eponymous team will shrink yet again, leaving but one name in the equation.

Abrahamson shows amazing formal restraint in suggesting the characters’ spaced-out state of mind. No hazy p.o.v.’s, no twitching fast-forwards, no succumbing the image to any pulsating rhythms, Arronofsky-style. Thanks to very rigorous framing and noticeable reluctance to surround the characters with inconsequential passers-by, Adam and Paul seem to be isolated from the society that enfolds them. In the director’s commentary – available on DVD – Abrahamson says that he was thinking of their actions as a kind of a strange ballet, and that quality of subtle artifice is there on the screen. (It’s also interesting to know that Abrahamson screened Bruno Dumont’s movies for his screenwriter and star, Mark O’Halloran – Dumont being one of the prime examples of deliberate artifice in portraying cryptic working-class characters.)

Adam and Paul seem hungry for an instant redemption that fantasy alone can provide – and then only temporarily. The beautiful, painfully transient sequence in which they’re both daydreaming about taking care of a baby, has all the sound drawn out and seems all the more unattainable for it.

Abrahamson is expert at withdrawing moral judgment and keeping us from sentimentalizing his “Laurel and Hardy on smack” (per DVD’s cover) pair of characters. And even though Paul – because of his wide-eyed, seemingly childish face – seems the “innocent” one,  it’s him who perpetrates most of the film’s reprehensible acts, including the devastating final pillaging of a dead friend’s body.

Overall, I was surprised and humbled by the scale of talents revealed by this movie’s director, screenwriter and actors. I’m about to watch Abrahamson’s second feature, Garage (2007), and I can only hope it’ll be as good as this one.