What Lies Under the Skin? [u]

Under the Skin - Instagram #2IMAGINE A CROSS between Eraserhead and Holy Motors.  Impossible?  That may be the most succinct way to describe the new Jonathan Glazer film Under the Skin.  Other films that flashed through my mind: 2001, The Matrix, Teeth, The Elephant Man, American Psycho, The Skin I Live In, MartyrsThe Minus Man.  But really Under the Skin can almost perfectly be described as a cross between Eraserhead and Holy Motors.  The movie is about an alien seductress / black widow character who goes about on her missions — but we’re never sure exactly what she is.

Under the Skin makes about as much sense as Eraserhead, which is not to say that it doesn’t make sense.  But there’s a lot left to the imagination — it’s all a bit of a mystery.  You are left to fill in the blanks.  It seems the movie could have added about 30 minutes to really explain everything — here and there it seems almost as if a connecting scene has been cut.  But I think the open style of the film makes it greater.  The movie is based on a novel, which a quick internet check reveals goes a long way to explain thing that are left a mystery on screen.  So, without having read the novel, I would say Glazer definitely had his own take on the novel.  Wikipedia confirms this, stating that the film was “loosely adapted” from the novel.

Besides not filling in all the blanks, the movie mixes very real-world and seemingly abstract scenes in a way that further makes us scratch our heads a little.  See Spoiler Alert below for more on this, for I think I at least partially cracked the code.  I am reminded of David Lynch’s response inDavid Lynch text block a Q&A session to someone asking him to explain Mulholland Dr.  I couldn’t find that exact exchange, but this quote about his surrealistic films in general is essentially the same:

The language of cinema can say abstract things. It can say things with sound and pictures that go into a viewer’s eyes and heart, and a thing is conjured that is not in a regular language – but there is a knowing, a realisation in the viewer from this language of cinema. It’s beautiful, beautiful language.

He provided this basic answer when asked to divulge the secrets of Mulholland Dr.  In other words, he’s not going to tell you a darn thing.  You go and figure it out yourself, according to your own interpretations.  If you’re going by the movie alone, the exact same thing could be said for Under the Skin.

Under the Skin - poster

On top of the masterful filmmaking, Scarlett Johansson turns in another great performance.  The film’s limited dialogue is somewhat muted, and often in a thick Scottish accent, to the point that at times it’s difficult to make out.  But I think this is deliberate — it’s not always so important what’s being said, but that something is being said in the appropriate context.  Talking in this movie is necessary at times to facilitate interactions, but the words themselves are secondary.

Back to Scarlett Johansson — she is turning out to be perhaps the best actress of her generation.  Kirsten Dunst I like a lot, and she was incredibly prolific, but she never presented the sheer range that Johansson is putting on display.  Neither has Michelle Williams, who is terrific as well.  Think about Johansson in just the last year: Her, Don Jon, Captain America, and now Under the Skin, where she executes an authentic British Scarlett Johansson - text blockaccent.  All highly disparate roles, all masterfully executed.  She’s pushing up into Meryl Streep territory — all she needs now is a role where she speaks four different languages in a perfect Polish accent.

Under the Skin is an extraordinary film.  The evolving puzzle is eminently compelling and captivating.  Immediately upon watching it, I was deeply impacted, but my stupefaction was leading me to an 8 rating.  Then I had my ah-ha moment (see below), and upon reflection I realized what a great film it is.  Disturbing, yes — it will get under your skin, it may haunt you, and it’s the best film of the year so far.  9/10

[UPDATED 7/26/14] — Rating upgraded to 10/10.

2014 in INDIES

2014 is turning out to be quite the year of the edgy indie.  Last year we had The East, The Place Beyond the Pines, Mud and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints — all conventional films which were barely indies at all given the star power.

This year, let’s see — we have Visitors, Nymphomaniac, and Under the Skin.  The Jarmusch picture will restore normalcy compared to the avant-garde crop we have so far.

SPOILER ALERT — FURTHER ANALYSIS

SPOILER ALERT!  SPOILER ALERT!  I am about to reveal some action EARLY in the film, so I am not really spoiling it.  But a film as great as this deserves to have absolutely no plot elements disclosed.  So DO NOT READ ON until you have seen Under the Skin, or unless you don’t mind a little spoilage.

My stupefaction, my bedazzlement upon watching this film prevented me from understanding how great it was at first.  Then I went to sleep.  In the middle of the night, I was dreaming about it, affixing the skin of my own right leg with that in the film.  And I woke up suddenly, with the light bulb going off:

Early in the film, our nameless protagonist brings back male suitors to her lair.  Upon entering, both man and woman begin to strip down in a pure black environment.  As the suitor follows, he walks down into a black liquid until completely submerged, while she walks backwards on the surface of the pool.  When watching this, I thought it to be purely an abstraction, but I wasn’t sure exactly what it all meant.  The lightbulb that went off in my head: As the men enter the black pool, they are actually entering her.

OK, maybe that’s not such the bombshell that I was building up.  But it makes sense to me: the black pool is in fact the interior of her body.  Now I imagine that reading the novel or its synopsis might lead to a different conclusion.  But in the context of the the way the film ends, this idea that when they enter the blackness — which they all do quite willingly, that they are actually being enveloped by her extended body — her version of sexual intercourse — this understanding allows me to grasp the movie in a way that I initially could not.

* * *

A different perspective — more light can be shed from an L.A. Times article on the movie:

 “She has no ill will,” said Johansson of her character in “Under the Skin.” “This isn’t a film about woman preying on man or a kind of hypersexual relationship. It has nothing to do with those things, it’s merely a lioness on the prowl, hunting. I think by the end of the film if you as the audience can feel sympathy for this other species as she begins to sympathize with us, that’s the experience.

Well put: that is exactly how I feel about it.

Under the Skin - Instagram #1

Oculus Adrift

Oculus - posterIn describing how slowly Oculus moves, I was going to say it has about as much story in it as a 20-something minute episode of the original Twilight Zone.  But that is giving way too much credit to Oculus.  This movie has received numerous positive reviews, with critics hailing it as a scary mind-bender.  I think those critics must have rather simple minds.  I’m with the critics who were not overly impressed; Ben Kenigsberg of the Times:

The elegant use of wide screen can’t totally obscure stiff acting, and the rug pulling finally seems arbitrary. When nothing can be trusted, the mirage of suspense disappears.

As I alluded to earlier, this movie takes forever to get going — nothing much happens in its slow first hour.  And not slow in the building tension-sense.  Slow in the wasting time and seemingly repeating scenes for no good reason-sense.  In the final half hour or so a little dramatic rhythm is built, and there are a couple brief moments of effective drama.

This movie’s entire mechanism lies in going back and forth between imagined realities — but this is getting to be a tired trick.  There are too many movies that do it much better, including the masterpiece Mulholland Dr.  By comparison to the Lynch classic, this is amateur hour.   And the worst sin for a horror movie — it’s just not scary.  An example: at one point late in the film, the camera flashes to a pair of ghost figures, meant to spook us.  I had a short chuckle instead — Oculus had just drifted into B-movie territory.  2/10

Cinematic Greats: Sling Blade

Sling Blade - poster

SPEAKING OF BILLY BOB THORNTON… I previously highlighted him in the terrific film A Simple Plan, but his greatest accomplishment is Sling Blade (1996).  He wrote, directed, and starred in this indie: what a way to claim your arrival at the doorsteps of Hollywood.  Sling Blade is a classic, timeless tale that I connect to great literary works such as Of Mice and Men and The Old Man and the Sea.  Kevin Thomas of the LA Times wrote at the time:

Billy Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade” is a mesmerizing parable of good and evil and a splendid example of Southern storytelling at its most poetic and imaginative.

Sling Blade is a must-watch film.  Try to find a good quality recording.  I find it odd and disappointing that such highly acclaimed films from such a relatively short time ago as the 1990’s are not readily available in HD.Sling Blade - still large

Fargo, Reborn

Fargo TV - Billy Bob Thornton

Billy Bob Thornton, as compelling as ever

I watch very little in the way of TV 1-hour dramas.  I could care less about CSI, SUV, NCIS, XYZQ, or whatever acronym-based legal/crime-fighting re-tread shows are out there.  Of all these shows, the only one I like is an occasional Law & Order: Criminal Intent, but only because of Vincent D’Onofrio.  When HDTV programming first arrived, I did marvel at CSI: Miami as a showcase of HDTV and the curiously odd façade put on by David Caruso.  The only currently-airing drama I watch is my guilty pleasure, Parenthood.  But now it’s time to add a second one.

As a huge fan of Fargo (1996), one of the greatest films ever made, you might think I wouldn’t be interested in its TV “original adaptation”, but the advance marketing piqued my interest, so I made sure to watch the pilot episode last night.  I went in skeptical, and at first was a little put off by obvious configurations of characters from the movie: Jerry Lundegaard is mapped into Lester Nygaard; Marge Gunderson to Molly Solverson, and the mostly-mute Gaear Grimsrud is more greatly transformed into Lorne Malvo, a don’t-mess-with-me bad guy played by the only true star of the show, Billy Bob Thornton.  Indeed, his character is much more like the villain of No Country for Old Men than anyone in Fargo.

It occurs to me now that the similarity in characters is very much intended — their names make that obvious.  Quickly enough, and happily so, we learn the plot won’t share any similarities to that of the movie, and that story becomes engaging in no time at all.  Although there are moments of incredulity here and there, they are quickly forgotten as the story hurries along.  Billy Bob Thornton’s character goes a long way to drive the story — besides being a dead-serious killer, he’s got lots of fun pranks up his sleeve.  This is the type of character, and performance, that can anchor big movies — and it sure works here.

The Times article on the series, “Jell-O Salad, Snow and Savage Murders” ends:

“Fargo” isn’t the movie; it’s a television adaptation that lives up to the spirit of the original by straying.

I loved it.  Count me in for the rest of the series.

Notes on Captain America: The Winter Soldier (3D)

It’s pretty simple: if you like these kind of movies, you will like this one.  If you are as bored with the latter-era comic-book superhero genre as I am, you won’t.  It’s not that I don’t like superhero-action movies, but I am finding most of these movies to be re-treads of one another.  And it doesn’t help when you know that no matter how bad things get, your hero and their core entourage will always survive.

Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans

Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans

Nonetheless, I liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier  — for about the first half.  I found it dramatic enough, and entertaining, and I particularly liked the women in it: Scarlett Johansson, Cobie Smulders, and Emily VanCamp.  But the second half degenerates into trite, formulaic action movie sequences.  The whole secret organization-within-a-secret organization idea is tired, and why do big action films so often feel that they need to lay forth some supposedly high-minded moralistic message?  Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times:

For what is frustrating about this “Captain America” is that it’s saddled with the defects of its virtues. It’s a product of the highest quality, but at the end of the day that’s what it is: a machine-made, assembly-line product whose strengths tend to feel like items checked off a master list rather than being the result of any kind of individual creative touch. “Captain America” is everything a big budget superhero film should be — except inspired.

Yep.  5/10