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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REVIEW: Her

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Her
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams and Rooney Mara

Her is a beautifully realized and often moving story of an impossible relationship.  It’s not just about a man who falls in love with his operating system, but instead uses that premise to springboard into a vast array of heady topics.  Spike Jonze dares to imagine an absurd romance with sincerity and depth of feeling, and in doing so makes the physical world of the future seem like a limited if beautiful place.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) at first seems like a typical protagonist in a modern male-centered romance like (500) Days of Summer or Garden State.  He is a sensitive writer whose skills with women demand a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to set things right. His new fully aware OS Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) seems to be that “girl” but instead becomes a sly critique of the archetype.

Samantha’s worldview transforms so thoroughly beyond Theodore’s comprehension by the end that her “human” traits and relationships are a miniscule part of what she is.  At first he is her window into the world, as he carries her around in his dress shirt pocket and lovingly answers her every question.  She is not a real woman, though, just like the women in those other previously mentioned movies.  However, Samantha is intangible not because of the male flimmaker’s narrow vision but because her intelligence is very nearly limitless and far surpasses the limitations of humanity.

A fully-functioning and feeling AI is right at home in the movie’s glossy take on future Los Angeles.  This is a place where computers can effortlessly copy penmanship and every interior looks like a modern art museum.  It’s also a world where relationships, conventional or not, don’t work.  Theodore buys the OS seemingly out of the blue.  He’s going through a divorce, and when his ex-wife (Rooney Mara) finds out about Samantha, she doesn’t hesitate to stick the knife in.

“You always wanted a wife without the challenges of dealing with anything real, I’m glad that you found someone” she says through her teeth.

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And yet, for all its gentle lecturing, Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is more emotionally and sexually charged than in most movies where you see both parties.  Many on-screen romances, largely because of the audience-friendly PG-13 rating, rarely bother with actual sex.  Her is rated R, because even though the sex scene is told from Samantha’s point of view (black screen), you can hear everything.

It’s impossible not to see Scarlett Johansson when she’s talking as Samantha.  It’s a sly joke to cast the woman who is so often used as eye candy (ahem, The Avengers) as a sexy Siri.  Her voiceover, which she nails, is so crucial to the movie’s success, as is the chemistry with Joaquin Phoenix, who gives an off-kilter, emotionally rich performance in the lead.  Amy Adams is also excellent as Theodore’s supportive friend.

Jonze starts to tread water with the premise in the last third of the movie, and though the theme “only humans can be human” is beaten to death in science fiction, it doesn’t feel stale in such a funny, moving film like this.  The future he and his crew have created is also far and away one of the most optimistic I’ve ever seen in a movie, a far and welcome cry from the generic dystopian nightmares that seem to be released every weekend.

Several changes of scenery don’t completely save the monologue-heavy screenplay, though.  I have a feeling if Jonze had again collaborated with Charlie Kaufman and have him run away with this idea, it would have been a masterpiece. That’s not to say what’s here is even remotely close to bad, though.  This is a perceptive, engaging and completely sincere romance, a rarity in American movies before you add on its amazingly realized near-future L.A.

Grade: B

REVIEW: Prometheus

Prometheus
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts (screenplay)
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Logan Marshall-Green, Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender

Shortly after making his break into the film industry Ridley Scott came across a film titled Star Wars that would rouse him to make Alien, an iconic, genre-defining sci-fi film of his own. Thirty years passed while Scott ventured into mastering other genres—his only other trip to the future being Blade Runner— until he saw another revolutionary sci-fi film that inspired him to take on the genre once again: Avatar.

Three years and dimensions later we have Prometheus, one of the most immersive and gleaming 3D sagas since Cameron’s Avatar set the bar (it’s a fun fact to note that Cameron’s breakout film was Aliens, the sequel to Scott’s original). In what will continue to be feverously debated as his prequel to Alien, Scott pools talents and ideas from various great modern sci-fi to amass an intense, hardwired summer blunder that doesn’t take itself serious enough at times to become as classic as it should.

Prometheus takes place in 2089, a few decades before Alien, when archeologists Shaw (Rapace) and Holloway (Marshall-Green) discover prehistoric wall paintings that suggest an interaction between early civilizations and other worldly life. Left with a hieroglyphic road map to outer space, they are joined by a J.J. Abrams rag tag team with bad accents and poor judgment, a sinisterly adorable robot named David (Fassbender) and the heir (Theron) to the Weyland Corporation that funded the trillion-dollar exploration to seek answers to the universe’s greatest question: how did we get here?

In a genre where everyone seems to be taking influences from everyone (including themselves), Prometheus proves itself a pioneer in atmosphere, aesthetic and marvel while other elements like pathos and consistency weigh down its potential. But that’s not to say Prometheus is by any means a weak film.

Exploring themes of creationism, religion and humanity give the creature feature purpose and prose, but it never lives up to the intensity created technically in the film.

Much of the blame for the film’s lackluster script goes to its co-author Damon Lindelof, who penned and produced similar cryptic mythologies and philosophical puzzles brilliantly on TV’s Lost. Just like the show, the film is interested in posing grand questions and answering each with two more questions— it’s deep and clever without ever being intelligent. Luckily the visuals and acting hide the audible cheese uttered by “first to die” team used to pander to universal audiences.

The script wants to have fun, but it’s at its best when it’s not. Its highlights include its most intense moments and gore. Rapace, Theron and Fassbender all make an undeniably all-star cast of expert focus plunging in and out of Scott’s beautifully crafted set pieces that never leave you at ease. And while we may not have gotten the answers we wanted, we’ll just have to enjoy the film for what it is now and wait for what the future may behold… sequels.

Grade: B-

REVIEW: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go
Directed by: Mark Romanek
Written by: Alex Garland (screenplay), Kazuo Ishiguro (novel)
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, and Sally Hawkins

Imagine as a child that your head is filled with ideas of life; of the aspirations and dreams of what it is meant to live it.  Your eyes light up at the prospect of being a doctor, a teacher, or anything else but a kid.  At that age, you’re ready to move on.

It’s not so hard to imagine those notions, because in one way or another we’ve all lived them, and it’s exactly that point that Never Let Me Go wants to hit home.  Though it takes place in an alternate reality where some people are raised to donate their organs to others, these are still people in every sense of the word.  They are allowed to live life, if on a much smaller time line.

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Ten to finish out ’10

With The Social Network and Let Me In giving movie-goers some anti-summer entertainment to look forward to this weekend, we thought it’d be a good idea to map out what the rest of 2010 will look like at the movies.  Here is our list of the 10 movies we think will matter the rest of the year.

Black Swan (Dec. 1)– Darren Aronofsky follows up The Wrestler with another behind the scenes plunge into the dark depths of competitive sports.  This time it’s Natalie Portman in the lead, playing a ballerina in a a gruelingly competitive production of Swan Lake. When Mila Kunis comes in as a the new kid on the block, the game is on.  That makes it sound like Step Up, but from trailer, which shows Portman sprouting feathers and red eyes, it will be decidedly weirder.  Aronofsky knows his way around pitch black, and has a knack for turning misery into beauty.  Expect nothing less here.

True Grit (Dec. 25)– What better way to celebrate Christmas than with a Coen Brothers movie?  They team up with Jeff Bridges again, this time to remake the western that won John Wayne his Oscar.  However, the brothers list the novel as their main source of inspiration because of its quick dialogue as well as the premise.  A daughter (newcomer Hailee Steinfield) sets out to apprehend her father’s killer with the help of a stubborn marshal (Bridges.)  The movie also features Matt Damon as a ranger accompanying the two and Josh Brolin as the killer.  With a remarkable cast like this, and the success they had adapting No Country for Old Men, it’s hard not to be excited about this one.

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SPOTLIGHT: Adrien Brody

Nobody would’ve believed someone who said Adrien Brody would be the science fiction star of 2010.  But here we are, with Brody offering up two performances in Splice and Predators that, along with his work in movies like King Kong, The Village, and The Jacket earn him a place among the most unconventional science fiction/fantasy stars working today.  However, Brody does much more than sci-fi.  He has triumphed the Oscars (The Pianist), solved murder mysteries (Hollywoodland), and searched for himself alongside his brothers (The Darjeeling Limited); whether or not the movie is that great, you can rely on Mr. Brody to create a character that you’ll want to watch and learn more about.  Here are his five most interesting to date.

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