REVIEW: Under the Skin

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Under the Skin
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Written by: Walter Campbell (screenplay),  Michel Faber (novel)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson 

In Under the Skin, Scarlett Johansson plays a wolf that doesn’t quite know how to wear sheep’s clothing.  She is an alien prowling Glasgow and the surrounding Scottish countryside in a white van, seducing and luring unsuspecting men to their death.

Jonathan Glazer’s third feature, based on Michel Faber’s novel, is a gender inverse on a fairly common horror/thriller premise.  The story is told in long, bleak stretches, the camera accentuating the way the creature attempts to move and act human.  Johansson’s performance is crucial to this strategy.  She nails the way the alien flips an “on” switch to turn a dead-eyed stare into a warm, welcoming woman when she spots prey.  Glazer hints at an eroticism with his camera movement that the actress deliberately pushes away.

The most sexually tinged scenes are the bloodless killings.  ScarJo’s victims, blinded by lust, pursue her into what transforms into a totally black stage.  They each leave a string of clothes as they lurch across it, but the men sink into the floor and become trapped.  The rest of Scotland isn’t much more colorful save for a reliably flashy night club.

Despite the color palette, this is Glazer’s most visually accomplished and altogether thrilling film to date.  When I watched it I had no idea that many of the interactions that the alien has with men were filmed using civilians and a hidden camera.  There is a cool, confident stillness to the images that rejects that often on-the-fly filmmaking aesthetic.  The performances, on the other hand, seem unforced and genuinely spontaneous.

Glazer and screenwriter Walter Campbell capture the alien predator’s bizarre point of view by making it clear that she is trying to fit in but can’t.  The result is an odd uncanny valley effect that Johansson’s star power only enhances.  This is evidenced in fairly standard alien movie scenes, like when she tries to eat human food and vomits it up, but also in her everyday movement and posture.  Under the Skin would be nothing without her blank yet inquisitive stares.

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The alien eventually begins to unravel during this vague man-harvesting mission.  In one of the most haunting and moving scenes I’ve seen in recent months, she stops to talk to a very deformed, quiet man on a rainy night.  She treats him as she does any of the other victims, but the script lingers on their interaction more.  She asks him if he gets lonely, then grabs his hand and caresses her face and neck with it.  The man’s darting eyes and nervous, muttered reactions are heartbreaking.

After this interaction, she lets the man leave her den, naked and wondering where he is.  He’s eventually collected and (presumably) killed by one of the undeveloped, motorcycle-riding henchmen who (presumably) clean up after her.  After that she wanders and begins trying more and more human things, including eating, riding the bus and sex.  The movie rejects any notion of redemption or change, though. It bounces humanity and their emotions off its central character instead of forcing her to become one of us.

Grade: B

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CANNES REVIEW: The Paperboy

The Paperboy
Directed by: Lee Daniels
Written by: Lee Daniels & Peter Dexter (screenplay), Peter Dexter (novel)
Starring: Zac Efron, Matthew McConaughey, Nicole Kidman and John Cusack

The morning screening of Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy was greeted with loud boos as well as sincere applause at Cannes, embracing the inevitable debate that will likely follow it when it washes up in the U.S.  It is a highly stylized look at 1960s Florida that transports the fashion and the social constraints without laying it on too thick.

Daniels’ directs the hell out of the movie, deconstructing the typical murder thriller plot into something that deliberately denies the audience a satisfactory conclusion.  There are scenes that wildly break the tone and stick out like a sore thumb, like a decidedly awkward, sort-of sexual early encounter between Nicole Kidman’s Charlotte and her imprisoned flame Hillary (John Cusack) during their visitation in front of his lawyers.

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SPOTLIGHT: Nicole Kidman

Few actresses have matched Nicole Kidman’s hot streak in the early 2000s.  Not that she set the box office on fire, more our imaginations.  People watch this accidental movie star fully embody a variety of characters with not only ease, but technical perfection.  She is a consummate professional when it comes to characterization and the emotional control she displays over her characters.  This perfection draws the audience to her even when she shares the screen with others more famous.  Although now she is a household name, that is only because she snatched it away from those who couldn’t hold onto audiences quite like her.

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The Best Performances of 2010

1. Annette Bening- The Kids Are All Right The kids might just be all right, but Annette Bening as a modern lesbian mother seeing her family spin out of control no matter how tightly wound her controlling character may be is more than all right, she’s fantastic. Her ability to play the character with such effortlessness and ease makes the audience forget they are watching film and instead submerse themselves into the troubles, anxieties and and love that her character Nic feels as she undergoes a common, but crucial stage in life. Key Scene: Even with so many to choose from, one scene one can’t forget after watching the film is the humorous yet explosive scene of seeing her daughter come home on a motorcycle with “donor-Dad” and finally releasing her feelings about his unwanted parenting.

2. Christian Bale- The Fighter– Bale steals scenes left and right in The Fighter, much like they were stolen from him in The Dark Knight. As the crack-addicted former boxing star of Lowell, Mass., he must now watch as his brother Micky chases after the dream with a clearer head.  Adding in humor only makes his character the sad clown, one that, unlike The Joker, you really feel for.  Key Scene: Bale singing a song with his mother (Melissa Leo) in the car after the two had just had a big argument.  The full spectrum of these two characters’ relationship comes to light thanks to this explosive and charming scene.

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REVIEW: Rabbit Hole

Rabbit Hole
Directed by: John Cameron Mitchell
Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire (screenplay & play)
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, and Sandra Oh

To know what you’re going through when you begin Rabbit Hole, know that the comedy is often found at grief counseling.  Yes, this is black comedy, or it pretends to be for a little while.

Adapted for the screen by David Lindsay-Abaire, the same man who wrote the play, Rabbit Hole offers little new in the now commonplace “dead kid” genre.  It weaves in and out through its 85 minutes on a journey to nowhere.  This is the point.  Grief puts life on hold for Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart.)  It doesn’t stop them from aging or any other miraculous time warp commonly associated with the term “rabbit hole.”  It simply keeps them miserable.

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ARCHIVE REVIEW: Dogville

Dogville
Directed by: Lars von Trier
Written by: Lars von Trier
Starring: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany, Patricia Clarkson, and James Caan

You’ll notice while watching Dogville that the town doesn’t actually exist.  Not in any literal sense that is, but in the minds of the actors and the ideals of the provoc-auteur behind it, the fictional non-town comes fully to life.  Lars von Trier, hell-bent on eliminating elements he deems unnecessary in films, has this time decided to completely remove an actual setting from his movie.  Instead all of the actors, big ones mind you, walk around a stage marked with condescending street names and flimsy outlines of houses.  You can see the entire population, and you often do.

For three rapturous hours von Trier holds and sustains a mood without anything but people, white lines, and some flimsy set pieces.  It’s a terrific feat all by itself, but added to the material is a script powered by ideas and filled with allegory.  He may have never been to America, but he sure knows how this country sees itself.  He approaches the filming as if he were watching a village of ants, often looking from above and then zooming in with his magnifying glass.

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