Film Brief: Knives Out

Cute, pedestrian and hardly original — but everybody knows that. Some fun though, and I give it credit for a lot of style points, especially with the interiors of that house. Entertainment value enough for a 6/10.

Comparison Notes: “Murder,” Season 6, Episode 10 of The Office, I do declare; Last House on the Left, Crimson Peak

Bad Times at the El Royale, and at El Teatro

The pacing — especially in the early going — of Bad Times at the El Royale is terrible.  With the rather simple story at hand, an hour could easily have been lopped off.  Either that, or throw some more taters in the soup.  Maybe a little celery.

Put another way: the remarkable setting — as hinted at in the lush and lovely poster above — is largely wasted.  I can only imagine what David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino would have done with both the motel and the pine trees behind it.  Of course, I needn’t speculate: we have Twin Peaks,  and we have The Hateful Eight.

It makes you appreciate Tarantino.  Even at nearly 30 minutes longer than El Royale, The Hateful Eight, largely set in a single lodge room, is never boring.  Only if that could be said of this poorly thought out knock-off.  4/10

Film Brief: Wind River

Taylor Sheridan wrote the abysmal Sicario, and the very good Hell or High Water — so perhaps it figures that Wind River, his most recent release, falls somewhere in-between.  Which is to say that it’s marginally recommended with the normal caveats.  I think Sheridan, who also directed, was maybe trying to go for a No Country for Old Men style of unraveling the mystery at hand, and utterly fell short.  But the performances were good, and I liked the way the film was resolved.

If you like Elizabeth Olsen — and how could you not — that’ll help.  6/10

PS  I’m always questioning my scale:  PT Anderson’s The Master is a movie I keep going back to.  Perhaps I need to watch it again at some point.  It’s hard to recommend Wind River only to recollect that I rendered a thumbs-down for The Master.

Mr. Holmes, Not to Presume

Mr Holmes - poster

TWO AND ONE-HALF rather weak sub-stories do not add up to anything greater.  The tag line “The Man beyond the Myth” is disingenuous malarkey.  Had the story, wrought from the premise of Sherlock Holmes as a real character, yielded something worthy of said premise, I would be more forgiving.

So let me be clear: when I say disingenuous, I mean it pisses me off.  I know there is no “true story” here, and it’s not as bad as the lie told by Silver Linings Playbook‘s marketing.  Nonetheless, fake sanctimonious sentimentality irks me.

And it irks me because of the worst crime of all:  Mr. Holmes was dull dull dull.  My admiration of Ian McKellen, and a certain, very slight charm, are the only things preventing a worse rating.  4/10

20 or So Puzzling Movies

Rotten Tomatoes - Puzzling Films - Mulholland Dr

Click for Slideshow

I have not seen many of these movies, so this link is for entertainment value only and not to be interpreted as any sort of endorsement of the films collectively or the opinion expressed about them.  But I will call out Blade Runner, Memento, Primer and Inception as not being worthy of compliment, even a “puzzling” label.  Puzzling often is a good thing, but those four films are plain lame.

Another note.  I always like to highlight Kubrick films, but I don’t consider The Shining any sort of puzzler.  It’s about as straightforward a sledgehammer to the head as you can get.  And there is ZERO “mundane” about 2001.

Venture More Deeply Under the Skin

Under the Skin

I’ve made the point before that I will not award a 10/10 rating to a movie until some time has passed after watching.  A 10 rating indicates not only something truly great, but a timeless film for the ages — a masterpiece.  A classification not to be doled out haphazardly.  Though just three months have passed since watching Under the Skin, its memory continues to pervade my consciousness.  It is a haunting film that has made an indelible mark on the landscape of cinema, and a lasting impression on me.  A film that I’ve not only thought about a great deal, but that has found its way into my dreams.  And the time has come to award it my 10 rating.

For such a short time to have passed, this is a bit of a risk for me.  I would look foolish if a year or two or ten from now I reflected again on Under the Skin and felt it did not warrant a 10 rating.  It is a testament to how strongly I feel about the movie that I’m placing the 10/10 label on it so soon.

* * *

Under the Skin - Come to Me

If you read my original review, understand that my analogy to a cross between Holy Motors and Eraserhead, though still valid, is no longer the way I would couch a discussion of Under the Skin.  That was my best effort at wrapping my head around this extraordinary film, of digesting it immediately upon consumption.  My understanding of the film has deepened since then, and I realize now that it demands to be dealt with strictly on its own.  It is so unique that comparison to other movies is not particularly useful to gain an understanding of it, except as an academic exercise.

But indulge me for a moment while I contradict myself.  In a state that was half waking and half sleeping, another comparison came to me: 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Based on Under the Skin, the filmmaker Jonathan Glazer has been compared by at least one critic to Stanley Kubrick.  There are a couple visuals that bring to mind 2001; I cite examples below.

But beyond the obvious, Under the Skin may be seen as an incredible twist on 2001, and here it is: in 2001, we had the monolith.  But here, the girl is the monolith.  Under the Skin - monolith text block 2Her body — whatever that exactly is, her charming ways, her black pool, her entire alien presence.  The monolith has returned to earth, but it has folded in on itself and become this very human, and simultaneously very alien sexual being.  The blackness, the void — all the abstract and mystical bounds of humanity represented by the monolith of 2001 are now embodied with this young woman.  Instead of the monolith as something seen from afar, and hesitantly approached for a closer glimpse or a touch, it has now become something you enter, something that envelops you.

Now mind you, I don’t believe Glazer or the novelist Michel Faber had 2001 in mind at all when composing Under the Skin.  But you can tell that this movie has fired up a lot of synapses in my brain.  Know too that the whole idea of an interpretation of Under the Skin as a greatly distorted retelling of 2001 is but one point of discussion, not a way to contain, define or delineate it in any way.

Continued analysis, discussion and debate are often the fruits of a masterwork.

* * *

This is one of those rare moments when a movie can just knock you over the head and flatten you.  Under the Skin operates on different levels: as a mystery, as a tale of survival, and as an exploration of sexuality and humanity.  Its profound depth is reinforced by its haunting, aptly-science fiction score and a darkened Scottish setting.  Just phenomenal.

With a movie this great, it doesn’t matter much to me what other critics are saying, but the high praise it has received is, I admit, reassuring.  Check out the official site and its culling of criticism — what might be hyperbole for a lesser film is anything but for this one.

But there were some negative reactions, among both professional critics and amateurs.  On Amazon, it only has a 2 1/2 out of 5 star rating.  A typical review:

A very beautifully photographed, but very odd film. Director was clearly a fan of Kubrick. Long, slow scenes with not much going on. Not appropriate for younger viewers and people that enjoy a faster pace.

Now I normally am not interested in citing dissent, but I have a point to make.  People who did not like this movie all have one thing in common: they just didn’t get it.  It went way over their head.  And I get that.  That’s the first level I mentioned: a mystery.  A mystery for the viewer to figure out.  Only then do the other two levels reveal themselves — that of  the survival adventure of the “lioness on the prowl”, as Scarlett Johansson put it, and then that of an exploration into human sexuality.

Under the Skin - depth text blockSo my point here is the fact that so many people did not like it does not indicate weakness or a lack of quality, but exactly the opposite.  A lot of people will be out of their depth with Under the Skin, and will not be able to get anything out of it.  As I said, I get that.  I had my hands full trying to comprehend this movie as I sat through it.  But if you can grasp it at all, it will stay with you.  You’ll be able to attain your own ways of understanding it.  And like any truly great art, its greatness will only expand from there.

* * *

iTunes extras graphicLest I forget to mention, there are now iTunes Extras available when you purchase the movie from Apple — this, and the upgrade to a 10 rating, constituted my original impetus for this post before I decided I had a helluva lot more to say.

The Extras are only available with the purchase (not rental) of the movie in HD ($15), and include 10 featurettes.  My inclination is that if I’m going to buy this movie, I’d rather have the Blu-Ray disc.  Now a check on Amazon does not mention the Extras, but I found a review of the Blu-Ray that confirms the featurettes are included.  So if I decide to purchase the movie, I’ll get it on Blu-Ray, and perhaps return it if the featurettes are not there.  I don’t recommend anyone purchase the movie unless they’ve already seen it.

Personally, this movie is still so vividly held in my memory that I don’t feel a need to purchase it — yet.  But those featurettes I am curious about, so I will probably buy it sooner than later.

Film Brief: The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes - poster

The Lady Vanishes (1938) was the penultimate film Hitchcock made in England before moving to the U.S., was a big hit at the time of release, and has a 97% Tomatometer score.  So as a Hitchcock fan who has not seen much in the way of his early films, The Lady Vanishes - still largeI was expecting good things.  What I found was a film with a decent measure of mystery and drama, mixed in with a lot of silliness.  By today’s standards, there’s a good deal of cheese to be found aboard this train.  But it’s all good fun.

The Lady Vanishes may be seen as a precursor to both Hitchcock’s later and greater works, and to a number of contemporary films, most obviously Jodie Foster’s Flightplan.  My recommendation: if you’re a Hitchcock fan and have seen a good number of his works, you will probably find this one worthwhile.  But if you haven’t seen much Hitchcock, skip this one in favor of his timeless, latter-era classics.  6/10

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!  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

Oldboy: A Postmodern Superhero

Oldboy - poster largeI NEVER SAW the original, highly regarded Korean Oldboy of 2003.  It was on my list, but I did not get around to it by the time I saw the current American release.  So my viewing was not encumbered by its predecessor, but those of most critics was.  The Tomatoemeter is currently at 43%, a score which generally would serve as an avoidance warning.  But it seems every critic entering

The Original (2003)

The Original (2003)

their score is comparing the remake to the original, which I suppose is fair but completely irrelevant to the majority of moviegoers (including myself) who never saw the original.  I will not impugn this as a remake any more than I did The Last House on the Left.  I will judge it based entirely on its own merits.

Now that I have that preamble and disclaimer out of the way, I thought that Oldboy (2013) was a fantastic, fun, exciting and original tale.  It also marks in my mind more activity by the director Spike Lee, though there is nothing old style Spike Lee-ish about this production.  It is reported (see Wikipedia article) that Lee was upset with “heavy editing” of the film which chopped 36 minutes.  That may explain a sense I had of minor incongruities here and there, or of the film being a bit rushed — but maybe the edits weren’t such a bad thing: this movie moves.  Its fast pace, transitioning from one exciting and eclectic plot element to another, helps make this a highly entertaining picture.

To understand what Oldboy is about, I’ll cite Richard Brody of The New Yorker, his entire review:

Hollywood’s wildest cinematic freakout since “Shutter Island” is a remake of—and an improvement on—the Korean original, from 2003. Josh Brolin stars as a swaggering corporate buck and a hard-drinking, philandering divorcé who awakens from a one-night stand to find himself in a motel room that turns out to be a solitary-confinement cell in a private prison. There, he learns from a TV report that he has been framed for the rape and murder of his ex-wife. When he finally gets out, twenty years later, he tries to find his captors, clear his name, and get revenge, but his captors have their own plans for him. The director, Spike Lee, and the screenwriter, Mark Protosevich, have kept the story’s Grand Guignol violence but trimmed its random excrescences and focussed its themes to fit the movie, subtly but decisively, into Lee’s canon. The extreme yet horrific artifice of the setup pulls backstory to the fore and reveals, as if in a sociological X-ray, several lifetimes’ worth of privilege abused, opportunities squandered, and energy (and resources) misspent, and places blame squarely on enablers who blindly encourage destructive behavior and disablers who, with an emblematic lack of compassion, punitively compound and perpetuate the destruction. With Elizabeth Olsen, as a recovering addict now devoted to good works. (In wide release.)

* * *

I just about loved this movie.  To me, I recognize it as a postmodern superhero story, an alternate to the boring Avengers and Supermen and walking dead vampires that are so prevalent and popular these days.  There are both deadly realistic and comic-booky elements (the fight scenes, for example), but the different styles mesh with the corresponding part of the story being depicted to create, again, a wonderfully eclectic and entertaining adventure.

Scott_Tenorman_Must_Die__Season_5__Episode_1__-_Full_Episode_Player_-_South_Park_StudiosCertainly I won’t give away the end, but let’s say that Oldboy is a twisted, wicked story of vengeance sought and served on the order of Seven or the “Scott Tenorman Must Die” episode of South Park.  I’m wavering between an 8 or 9 on this one; for now I’ll give it a high 8/10.

Oldboy_-_Movie_Trailers_-_iTunes 2


Happy Halloween!

Donnie Darko Poster

I think the original release poster above is the best, but it’s remarkable how certain films capture the imagination of artists enough to create a multitude of alternate posters which too do a great job of representing the film.  The first one below is my favorite.  And yes, I know S. Darko is a direct-to-video sequel of supposedly little value, but I like the picture.