Month: April 2014
“Under The Skin” ****1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Jeremy McWilliams, Scott Dymond, Michael Moreland, Lynsey Taylor-Mackay, Dougie McConnell
Written by: Walter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer (screenplay), Michel Faber (novel)
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
Some films, regardless of their quality, just haunt you- not in the traditional sense, but rather in the way that it lingers in your mind. Maybe it’s a stunning visual, a rousing piece of music, a bravura performance, or even the moment in your life that the film finds you, but something latches on and doesn’t let go. All of those examples apply to director Jonathan Glazer’s “Under The Skin”, which defies categorization, for it lacks a traditional narrative. It is neither a science fiction nor a horror film- in fact, one might be hard pressed to even label it as a ‘film’ that one goes to ‘see’. Instead, it is more of an experience, or a feeling- a nearly two-hour dream sequence, equal parts nightmare and erotica, with an extra-terrestrial predator (I guess?) as the central figure. Despite the occasional lull, “Under The Skin” is a sinister symphony of a film, wholly unique and engrossing.
The opening scene, is, well…something, for I can only provide an interpretation of what it entails. We are taken through a portal of sorts, as if enveloped by the imagery on-screen, as we hear a human female voice sounding out words that she most certainly has never spoken before. The camera moves out to reveal an eye, coupled with a familiar face, faded out to a familiar body. We know this figure to be Scarlett Johansson, but oddly enough there appears to be two of her. One is prone and immobile on the floor, while the other studies from above. What has happened here? The simplest explanation is that the steely figure above (the film calls her “Laura”) has ‘copied’ the stunned figure below, and will now go forward with ‘her’ purpose.
That purpose appears to be the systemic seduction of hapless young males for nefarious reasons. The chilly, damp villages and countrysides of Scotland become the perfect setting for this monster, who uses what she has gathered of human sexuality to lure men to her. Interestingly enough, “Laura” doesn’t just want any testosterone-crazed fool; instead, she wants those that are relatively unattached, men who won’t necessary be ‘missed’. This story recognizes the traits of an effective predator, and together with Johansson’s brilliant portrayal as a cool hunter and a warm soul, creates “Laura” as such. She gives her would-be victims just enough to be not only convinced of her intentions, but also the confidence to feel safe in doing so. In other words, she lets these men basically do the work for her- and the unnerving ritual begins.
“Laura” picks up these men in her white van (imagine that) and drives to a dark, seemingly abandoned location (of course), and lures them inside. What awaits them is something I cannot completely give away- not due to a desire to maintain the film’s secrets, but rather because I cannot fully explain it. The setting is a mind-bending, alluring, wholly alien trap- a reflective, opaque nightmare of a hot tub. The victims, all systematically stripping down to their birthday suits, are drawn in with the idea that “Laura” will, of course, have sex with them. These poor guys are in over their heads, literally, as they sink into a state of suspended animation (I think). What comes after is something I’ll leave for you to experience; suffice to say, I am not easily shaken, but the fates of these victims are depicted in a way that, quite simply, unhinged the airtight doors to my psyche. Bravo, filmmakers, you managed to break through my fear defenses.
One particular would-be victim, a gentleman with a facial disfigurement, seems to affect “Laura”, to the point where she lures him to the trap, but cannot complete the deed. At this point, the film seems to want to play with the idea of the ‘human experience’, and shows “Laura” viewing herself in a mirror (ok, not herself, but her borrowed human skin). From that moment, she attempts some basic human activities, and oddly enough, it appears to send her reeling. Advanced she may be as an extra-terrestrial, but she cannot process the sensations. What does this mean? Does the film want to reaffirm humanity as a unique, viable species despite our shortcomings (walking into danger for sex, violence, etc)? Perhaps her reactions are simply the filmmakers need to explore how an alien might feel. I cannot be sure, but I like the result.
The science fiction sap in me kept wanting to ask more questions. Why are these aliens doing this? What is that opaque nightmare composed of? How do these creatures solve the problem of our atmosphere? Who is the motorcycle man who appears to direct “Laura” through some sort of empathic connection? This film is smarter than that, and in the process shows off some science fiction skills; by alluding to, but never directly answering, the solutions to these questions, we’re left to ponder them in our minds, a surefire way to keep a film in your mind.
It is entirely possible that those of you reading this may see the film and come away with entirely different feelings than I. Some may see this for what I do- a jarring ball of creepy. Others may fall asleep, or come away from it desperately wanting to accost me for recommending it. Others may walk out of the theater (I counted multiple departures in the theater I was at). It’s that kind of film, or experience, if you will. No matter which side of the aisle you find yourself on, one thing is for certain- it will stick with you, for better or worse. There is enough unnerving and beautiful imagery, jolting arcs in the score with a sinister undertone, and genuinely tense moments that lead me to declare that Glazer and crew have managed to successfully and intelligently create something that can do what few films can claim- have an effect on an audience long after they’ve viewed it. I’d even venture a guess that the filmmakers, even Scarlett Johansson, would be more interested in hearing how their film made you feel as opposed to your final opinion. Myself? I can’t imagine forgetting this one. It made me feel…icky…in a good way.
“Oculus” *1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cochrane, Annalise Basso, and Garret Ryan
Written by: Mike Flanagan & Jeff Howard (screenplay), based on a short screenplay by Mike Flanagan & Jeff Seidman
Directed by: Mike Flanagan
“You see what you want to see”– tagline for “Oculus”
If the above tagline made any sense to you, more power to you. Mirrors have the capacity to bring forth a myriad of emotions from those gazing upon them. From a single view, we can generate everything in our minds from self-doubt, vanity, horror, and even wonder. That being the case, I’m surprised it took this long for the horror genre attempt something preposterous about a mirror, as it seems ripe for the picking. Go figure, “Oculus” exists, if for no better reason than to give young people something to do on a weekend. It doesn’t have much to say, and when it does, it is vague and non-sensical. Despite a fine visual sensibility and a smattering of palpable tension, “Oculus” just doesn’t yield anything revelatory, and at times is simply maddening.
‘Doctor Who’ alum Karen Gillan stars as the adult version of Kaylie, and her character is introduced looking rather smugly at a mirror she appears to have located at an auction house. We’ll ignore the fact that her employment at said auction house is a convenient way for the script to explain her acquisition, as well as provide her an understanding husband (Ryan) who just happens to run the place. This mirror, with gothic arches, serpentine decor, and an obvious ‘Evil-Rubbed Bronze’ stain, is an ominous-looking artifact. The sinister nature of the its’ appearance is a dead giveaway that it has an ulterior motive other than, say, hanging on a wall.
Keeping in mind the motives of inanimate objects, let’s examine the capacity of a mirror to be creepy, and perhaps we can discern whether or not this movie’s premise itself is “ridoculus” (see what I did there?). When I was younger, I saw mirrors three ways: 1) a reflective surface that was literally a framing device to develop my self-image, 2) a playground for my imagination, as I envisioned a ‘world’ behind the mirror, and 3) a horrific homeland for monsters and demons, particularly due to the “Bloody Mary” myth perpetuated by older friends and relatives. Does “Oculus” feel like exploring any of that territory?
Of course not, for the mirror in this film has some kind of supernatural power. Those that gaze upon it are ‘influenced’ (not quite possessed) to carry out horrific deeds for the mirror. Here’s the odd part- the mirror can apparently materialize into a physical presence as well, that humans can interact with, and the kids in this film actually see. It leads to an obvious question- why in the world would a supernatural presence have another body take care of what it could do all by itself? It’s a good example of why this film doesn’t work, for the script provides no motivation or origin for the mirror’s nefarious behavior, or scientific reason for it’s existence; therefore there are no rules, simply tired devices to advance the plot. In the likely sequels to follow, the writers will be forced to concoct an explanation out of the illogical mess they’ve created.
Back to the “story”- Kaylie is determined to get back at this inanimate object, so much so that she involves her brother Tim (Thwaites). I have a problem with this: the film shows these two siblings directly involved in the grisly death of their parents, then only reveals that one (Tim) has been hospitalized. Then, upon Tim’s release eleven years later, Kaylie immediately involves him in her plan to return to their old home and destroy this mirror that was apparently responsible for their parent’s fates. The movie could stop right here, as a healthy Tim would reject his sister’s plot for revenge if he was, in fact, healthy. It also bears mentioning that Kaylie, as disturbed as she might also be, doesn’t seem to consider her brother’s well-being at all. In one step, the film shows us a pair of very close siblings that experienced something terrible, then in the next breath she’s dragging him back into the fray and ostensibly risking both of their lives. These siblings aren’t as in tune as the movie might suggest- at one point while ‘documenting’ the mirror’s evils, they specifically tell each other to stay together the rest of the time they are in their old house. The very next scene? They split up.
This is a good looking movie, capably made and all. There are even a couple of reasonably tense moments, and the score is a fine companion piece. As an entire film, however, it just doesn’t work. I wonder if the filmmakers originally started with a story about perception, and the way we view ourselves, or (this is a stretch) perhaps a larger parable about children and the collateral damage of divorce, but ended up with a cheap horror movie. The latter is the more likely of the two. “Oculus” makes up rules to advance the story, gives us characters that make odd decisions, and even the film’s centerpiece (a killer mirror, oh my!) is given no logical origin or purpose for existence. Even the plot device that seems logical is goofed- the story spends time setting up cameras, computers, and routines to prove the existence of spiritual wrongdoing, but oddly enough, within its’ own framework cannot prove it. It’s the blind leading the blind. I found myself disliking the film exceedingly more as I took the time to organize my thoughts for this review. Perhaps that’s a disservice to the project, and maybe my more immediate reactions would have produced a more favorable result and a fairer assessment. Perhaps it’s just a bad film, masquerading as a serious psychological thriller.
“Noah” **1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Douglas Booth, Ray Winstone, and Anthony Hopkins
Written by: Darren Aronofsky & Ari Handel
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
**SPOILER ALERT (it seems perfunctory, but still…)**
**Note: My religious beliefs obviously have a bearing on whether or not I enjoyed this film; however, I shall make a sincere attempt to critique the film on its’ own merits.**
It is important to note that I have no grounds to critique the historical accuracy or inaccuracy of a Bible story. Suffice to say, I’m familiar enough with the idea of the ark, Noah, animals furry and slimy, and scripture that I can at least have a frame of reference. The thought of an actual Hollywood production of this story seems a bit preposterous- with varying viewpoints, faith-based opinions, and a lack of pure evidence to reference, a representation of such a fantastical story would have to be taken for what it is, conjecture.
The question, then, is whether or not “Noah” accomplishes the mission to be a competent, consistent film, conjecture be damned- and my answer is a soft ‘no’. It has the ambition of a blockbuster, but none of the joy. It has the tenacity to be provocative, but lacks the conviction required for deeper meaning. It is thoughtful, but not wholly religious. It strives for authenticity, then allows for silliness. All of these inconsistencies might generally doom a film, but “Noah” isn’t a complete failure- simply an incomplete and confusing undertaking. It’s a blockbuster film from an independent filmmaker, and it just doesn’t work.
Most know the story, but I digress. Noah (Crowe, in a performance you’d likely expect), per the Old Testament, was an obedient man. So obedient, in fact, that God chose him as the deliverer of all innocent creatures- for He so loved people that He decided to kill 99.9% of us and ‘cleanse’ the Earth. A task so grandiose would call for a steadfast servant, and Noah was indeed that man. A direct descendant of Seth, one of Adam and Eve’s children, Noah possessed the pure-of-heart genealogy that made him ideal for God’s task, and set him apart from others in his time. The film depicts him as a decent but sad man, weary of outsiders (descendants of Cain and Abel) that seem to be driven simply by chaos.
We understand through the narrative that Noah is part of the tenth generation of man, a population that had clearly lost touch with their creator. This film also tells us that despite our youth as a species, we were apparently quite advanced- we could manufacture vast amounts of weaponry, grasp the nuances of hand-to-hand combat, speak with distinguished English accents, and give birth in soggy, animal-infested environments with little to no consequence (or medicine). We also walked the Earth in the presence of fallen angels, who apparently became prehistoric transformers as part of their plight. A select few of us apparently had God-like powers as well, which begs the question- why believe in a creator when you don’t need one?
Therein lies the problem with “Noah”- the film simply cannot commit. It begins bombastically, then depicts humanity as primitive and savage. Then it introduces mysticism. Then Noah and his family are helpless, but then the next moment they have God to bankroll their actions. Then humans are incapable of behaving humanely, thus ‘proving’ why they deserved death, I suppose. Then they are inspired by a single menacing guy (Winstone) to intricately organize a massive assault on Noah’s ark and provide an unnecessary antagonist. Furthermore, the very moment Noah can prove his obedience beyond a shadow of a doubt, to truly affect the future of the human race as he was tasked to do- he cannot, for he is weak. It’s the same type of weakness that millions were punished for. The moment disproves the notion that Noah was indeed special, for how can the chosen messenger be the chosen messenger if he disobeys a direct order? We’ll never know. I’d say the filmmakers were making a statement about faith, free will, or human nature, but the rest of the film is jumbled just enough that I cannot say for sure either way.
As a technical achievement, however, “Noah” has few rivals. The ark, for one, is a thing to behold. For that matter, most effects in this film, especially those involved with the flood, are stunning. When the rains come, and the water flows, it is swift and frenzied to the point where I became immediately sold that nothing land-based could survive. As the ark becomes a mobile vessel, the film’s most powerful moment, enhanced by CGI, takes place. A ‘mound’ of people, crawling over each other to escape the rising waters,writhes in fear, creating one of the more terrifying scenes in recent memory. Imagining how Noah and his family must have felt hearing the carnage outside was humbling. If the rest of the film carried the same weight as that scene, we’d have something. Director Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”) understands that weight- in fact, his “Requiem For A Dream” was so heavy that I cannot bear to see it again. He seemed to understand the need for a steady theme and tone, which makes this film even more confusing.
I’m aware that I may be attempting to interpret this film too literally, but please do not misunderstand- I gather that the film is asking us to take the story on faith, and perhaps take something away from it to bolster said faith. That doesn’t excuse its’ faults, nor will I ignore its’ merits. Despite being an inconsistent film lacking a true identity, I found myself appreciating a variety of moments. I simply wanted the film to embrace something, to be that movie that tries to interpret the language of the time, the fighting style of the time, the brutal, primitive nature of the first round of humans. “Noah” is certainly not a complete failure. Rather, it is a fine case study on how a filmmaker with the moviemaking soul of an independent created a studio-appeasing blockbuster so he can continue making movies with an independent soul.
**Note- It is clear to me that this film wants us to consider animals as innocents, and wants us to abhor our consumption of their meat, or at least ponder that we’re eating the wrong things. We sure do enjoy slaughtering those innocent beasts and enjoying their char-broiled loins. I for one remain unphased, and yearn for my next juicy steak. Sorry Noah.
“Muppets Most Wanted” **** (out of 5)
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Ty Burrell, and the voice talents of Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobsen, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta, David Rudman, and Matt Vogel
Written by: James Bobin & Nicholas Stoller, based on original characters created by the Jim Henson Company
Directed by: James Bobin
I’m not much of a fan of most ‘musicals’, but somehow the late Jim Henson’s creations, even those of lesser quality, manage to draw my interest. There is a musical number in the 8th theatrical ‘Muppets’ film, performed by the villain, who channels his inner “Dos Equis” frog. In that moment, I realized how happy I was to be taking in real comedy from real comedic minds, recalling an era long gone from cinema. It’s smart yet preposterous, but not so goofy as to be not interesting. “Muppets Most Wanted” is basically pure enjoyment from beginning to end, brought to us from imaginative filmmakers- the type of film that continues to bring a grin to my face.
With Disney in control of the property, as well as the unexpected magic of the 2011 entry, there is an opportunity for justifiable pessimism about this sequel. The script recognizes that, and opens with a self-referential musical number about, well, sequels. It’s an ingenious, tone-setting transition piece that leads the audience to the same question the ‘Muppets’ crew has- what next? If you’ve seen “The Muppets (2011)”, you’ll remember that it took everything the gang had just to put on one show, let alone create a new identity and model for lasting success. In particular, the ever-neurotic Kermit worries that he will run out of ideas to keep this good thing going.
The movie has an answer for that, in the form of the best, if not most obvious name for a character in recent memory- Dominic Badguy (Gervais). Dominic is a promoter, and sells the Muppet crew on the idea that he has the means to grow their brand and tour the world. Kermit feels the pressure to hire him, but he’s suspicious- and he should be, for Dominic is the second in command to the world’s most dangerous criminal, Constantine the frog. He is the mirror image of our hero (which only works because of the film’s tone), so of course, he hatches a plan to escape a Russian Gulag, swap places with Kermit, befuddle the Muppet crew, and make off with England’s crown jewels. Now Constantine sounds nothing like Kermit, and has a distinguishing mole to boot, but the movie is able to explain itself out of this plot hole with ease and gut-busting humor.
Kermit, now imprisoned and recognized as the notorious Constantine, is forced to adapt to life in a Gulag, and a guard named Nadya (Fey). It doesn’t take long for the motley crew of prisoners to take to Kermit, nor does it take long for Nadya to become enamored. Before you know it, she is tasking the frog to direct a prison revue, much to the delight of the inmates. For reasons only this movie understands, the prisoners (among them Ray Liotta, Jemaine Clement, Tom Hiddleston, and Danny Trejo playing Danny Trejo) are super musical themselves, even busting out a little Boyz II Men for our delight.
Constantine’s poor impersonation of Kermit involves a slew of hilarious scenes in which he’s able to dupe most everyone (save for Animal and Walter) into thinking he’s helping them. Curiously, valuable items end up missing or broken in buildings adjacent to where the Muppets are performing. These coincidences catch the attention of Sam the Eagle and Jean-Pierre Napoleon (Burrell), two strong-willed buffoons of law enforcement officers who can’t stop comparing badge sizes. References to the French work ethic are hilariously alluded to as Burrell channels Inspector Clouseau while operating what has to be the world’s smallest working car.
This gloriously absurd tale does come to a head, for inevitably Kermit and Constantine must duel wits and webbed feet to ‘win’ Miss Piggy’s affections, if you can call them that. Up to that point, we’re treated to fantastic puns aplenty- specifically, jokes involving the Swedish Chef pondering existentialism (so ‘meta’ that it works), Beaker donning a bomb magnet suit, Gonzo attempting an on-stage running of the bulls, and a not-so-veiled dig on Celine Dion (who shows up to ape Michael Bolton’s satirical commercial work). There’s even a homage to the Marx Brothers’ classic “Duck Soup” scene, as Kermit must ‘mirror’ Constantine because the actual ‘mirror’ has popped out. Lest we forget, this is done with puppets. Really, what’s not to like here?
It’s easy to see how much the filmmakers, musicians, puppeteers, and actors care about this material, and how fond they are of the Muppet characters. This film has an energy, or a vibrancy, that even the last film can’t quite touch- it’s certainly funnier, and darned if it isn’t smarter. Even the musical numbers aren’t awkward or overbearing like Muppet songs can be. Credit for this goes directly to actor/songwriter/music supervisor/Conchord alum Bret McKenzie for bringing a strong music sensibility and a sly wit to this film, just as he did with the previous entry.
Sure, I’m more prone to enjoy pun humor, or satirical nonsense than say, an Adam Sandler romp, but “Muppets Most Wanted” stands affirmed as a fun film regardless of your comedic preferences. If there’s anything that didn’t work, I’d say that Tina Fey has been sharper, Ricky Gervais could have held back from being Ricky Gervais towards the end of the film (the lemur costume thing just didn’t work), and Christoph Waltz could have garnered more screen time. Those reasons alone cannot turn me against the film, for the Muppets are the stars here, and rightly so. It’s also possible that the script’s wit will be lost on younger moviegoers, who may not catch some of the references adults will assuredly enjoy. Also, I can’t fault the film for straying from too much straight-up physical, hyperactive humor, but that certainly has kid appeal, and it isn’t prevalent here.
The Muppets spent their last film pondering the need for, or relevance of, their comedy in today’s world. With a film such as this to bolster my opinion, I can boast that there is indeed a place for them- provided those with the kind of talent that made this are still interested in bringing out the best in the characters. I believe I’ll be grinning about this one for some time.