Under The Skin

2015 Academy Awards Recap

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According to some lesser-known social media site called “Twitter”, the 2015 Academy Awards took place this past Sunday.  Host Neil Patrick Harris got in a few fine jabs at both the Academy and the audience, but his ‘prediction box’ bit fell flat.  The show was a mix of awkwardness and fine acceptance speeches, especially from Patricia Arquette, Common & John Legend, and screenwriter Graham Moore.

Aside from the severe lack of Gone Girl nominations, I suppose the show was interesting enough.  As for predictions, my Oscar ballot was awfully inaccurate, but I’d like to share what maybe should have won in the major categories:

 

Best Picture
Actual winner- Birdman
Preferred Winner- Gone Girl
*Rationale- Birdman is a fine movie, and a worthy nominee. However, I counted 11 films I liked more this past year, most of all the absolute perfection that is Gone Girl. I’m bummed that Hollywood couldn’t help but honor a movie about itself. Go head and be narcissistic, Academy, but you got it wrong.

Best Actress
Actual winner- Julianne Moore in Still Alice
Preferred winner: Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl
*Rationale- I haven’t seen Still Alice, and I love Julianne Moore in most everything. There’s just no way that it’s better than the subtle psychopathy on display from Pike. It’s something I’ll remember for years.

Best Actor
Actual winner- Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything
Preferred winner- Michael Keaton in Birdman
*Rationale- I haven’t seen Redmayne’s performance, but too often the Academy awards the physical performance over the more resonant one. Keaton has been overlooked for decades now, and his brilliant turn as a has been seeking admiration is just right; despite what he says, I believe it’s easy to draw parallels between the man and his character.

Best Supporting Actress
Actual winner- Patricia Arquette in Boyhood
Preferred winner- Emma Stone in Birdman
*Rationale- Arquette was excellent in Boyhood, but the little bit of Emma Stone we see in Birdman was the best supporting performance. One specific scene, an encounter with her father (Keaton), showcases her range. It’s truly brilliant, considering the lengthy shots this film has, being able to put that performance together without breaking.

Best Supporting Actor
Actual winner- J.K. Simmons in Whiplash
Preferred winner- J.K. Simmons
*Rationale- In my estimation, there wasn’t a better performance all of last year. Simmons was the ultimate villain, full of fire, brimstone, cold calculation, deceit, and the belief that he was right. It’s the perfect formula. The idea that Whiplash was inspired by true events is frightening. Simmons gave the performance of a lifetime.

Best Animated Film
Actual winner- Big Hero 6
Preferred winner: How To Train Your Dragon 2
*Rationale- Big Hero 6 is not a bad movie, but its’ manga sensibilities dragged it down, resulting in a very underwhelming film. The marketing team did their jobs very, very well. HTTYD 2 is a superior film, in both scope, humor, and heart; how the Academy didn’t see that is beyond me. My guess is they shied away from a sequel title. One must wonder what they were doing here, especially with the omission of the popular Lego Movie.

Best Score
Actual winner- Alexandre Desplat for The Grand Budapest Hotel 
Preferred winner- Danny Bensi/Saunder Jurrians for Enemy and Mica Levi for Under the Skin
*Rationale- There is never anything special about the prolific Desplat’s work, nothing memorable, only distracting. It’s as if he cannot help but bore the listener. Some may dismiss this category, but to me, the score can make or break the film, and too often, Desplat’s music distracts. The tense, terse strings of Enemy and Under the Skin have cues that call to mind the best parts to Bernard Herrman’s brilliant Vertigo score, yet still maintain their own off-putting nature. The Academy often has no balls to nominate the right score, let alone choose the right winner. No exception here.

Best Original Song
Actual winner- John Legend & Common for “Glory” from Selma 
Preferred winner- John Legend & Common for “Glory” from Selma
*Rationale- For the first time in recent memory, there were a plethora of decent original songs, from the adult-contemporary tune from Begin Again to the hyper beats of “Everything Is Awesome”.  “Glory” deserves the win, however, for its’ power and quality.  John Legend’s pointed comments while accepting the award absolutely rang true.

Best Visual Effects
Actual winner- Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter, and Scott Fisher for Interstellar
Preferred winner- Insterstellar
*Rationale- Complain all you want about Interstellar’s story- I don’t think complaints for the visual effects would hold up.  Aside from some impressive visuals in Guardians of the Galaxy, no film compared to Interstellar’s innovative designs, especially for the robots.

Best Original Screenplay
Actual winner- Birdman
Preferred winner: The 4 writers of Birdman (based on the actual nominations; Damien Chazelle for Whiplash based on my preference)
*Rationale- Oscar basically got this one right based on the nominations, for it’s one of the more original, interesting ideas in recent memory. If Whiplash would have been in this category, I’d have chosen it; however, Oscar got lazy and placed it in the “adapted” category. Whiplash was an incredible battle of wills, begging the question “what price greatness”, and creating the most memorable villain in recent memory (J.K. Simmons).

Best Adapted Screenplay
Actual winner- Graham Moore for The Imitation Game
Preferred winner- Paul Thomas Anderson for Inherent Vice
*Rationale- No disrespect for Mr. Moore, whose acceptance speech was incredibly courageous and important. However, watching Inherent Vice was a complete trip, and there is no way I’m NOT quoting it five years from now. That’s the mark of brilliant writing, and what PTA adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel.

Best Foreign Language Film
Actual winner- Ida
Preferred winner- n/a
*Rationale- Unfortunately, I haven’t seen Ida, or any of the foreign language film nominees this year.  Ida is readily available on Netflix, however, and I’m keen to watch it.

Best Documentary
Actual winner- CitizenFour
Preferred winner- n/a
*Rationale- Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of the nominated documentaries this year.  I did see a number of other excellent docs however, including the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself. The acceptance speech given by Laura Poitras, CitizenFour’s director, was another poignant moment, warning us to always guard our freedoms.

Best Cinematography
Actual winner- Emmanuel Lubezki for Birdman
Preferred winner- Bradford Young for Selma
*Rationale- Birdman was certainly a genius cinematic achievement, and the camera work was something special.  However, I understand cinematography as the film that truly looks the best.  To me, Bradford Young’s work on Selma was unmatched this year, cloaking the film in an almost sepia tone, taking us back 45 years into one of the United States’ darkest hours.  Nothing against Lubezki, a true master and Oscar winner from just last year, but Young’s work deserved more notice.

Best Production Design
Actual winner- Adam Stockhausen for The Grand Budapest Hotel
Preferred winner- Adam Stockhausen for The Grand Budapest Hotel
*Rationale- I may not have enjoyed the film, but Stockhausen’s production design was a standout, for sure.  From the pink hotel to the red-lined elevators and postcard-esque exteriors, I admit that the clearly painstaking detail that was put into that production’s design was the high point of the film.

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The Best of 2014- Year In Review

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SELMA WISH I WAS HEREgone girl

The Best of 2014

What appeared at the beginning to be a down year for blockbusters and good films in 2014 ended up an absolute boon for film lovers like me.  From smaller, less recognized gems to the year’s typical blockbuster fare, I can’t help but be rather thankful for all we had last year.

It is time for me to reveal my top 10 list for 2014, as all good and pretend film critics must do.  Feel free to comment with a list of your own, or share this story with anyone that wants to catch up.

10. Inherent Vice The easy comparison to Paul Thomas Anderson’s California stylish stoner comedy/epic farce would be The Big Lebowski, but there are subtle differences that make Vice stand on its’ own.  For one, Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc character’s love for Shasta (played by the stunning Katherine Waterston) grounds the story.  Also, the character names alone would make me love this movie- the aforementioned Shasta, Sortilege, Ensenada Slim, Petunia Leeway, and Sauncho Smilax.  Those names belong to characters in a stoner dream, which, I suppose, is exactly what this is.  Of the ten films on this list, it’s possible that Inherent Vice will be the one I watch more than any of them.  It really is that much fun.

9. American Sniper- Clint Eastwood’s docudrama on the life and times of Chris Kyle is an intense film, executed to near perfection.  Aside from the skewed opinions of many, the film itself is masterful, crafting a linear story of a complicated man.  Allowing your politics to influence how you feel about this film is the wrong choice.  Instead, allow Eastwood’s deft direction to guide you through the experience of not just Kyle, but perhaps our whole military for the past 12 years.

8. Under The Skin- Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel is one of those films- you know, the ones that are more atmosphere than content, that suggest rather than elaborate, that rely on the simplest facial movements rather than unnecessary dialogue.  The shrill strings that accompany the brilliant score by Mica Levi assist in bringing this film to the ultimate tension level.  I also admit to being thoroughly frightened by a particular scene, and even 9 months after seeing the film, it still bugs me.  Some may say this drags on, but I’d say watch it again- it got even better the second time around.

7. Whiplash- Director Damien Chazelle’s semi-autobiographical tale of master and apprentice is an extraordinary battle of wills.  Miles Teller shows what an excellent actor he is when he’s not involved in Divergent nonsense, and J.K. Simmons’ alpha male gives the year’s best supporting performance as, well, a villain.  What truly makes this a great film is Chazelle ‘s ability to place doubt in our mind.  Is greatness truly derivative of madness?  You might say no, but this film brings a great argument to the table.

6: Chef- Of all the 2014 films I saw, Jon Favreau’s Chef may be the one I revisit the most.  The love of food is an important theme, sure, but the life of a brilliant chef, and the relationships he acquires and maintains through the visage of brilliantly prepared food is the focus with this film.  It helps that a man I know and care about is the spitting image of Favreau’s character, and his words and actions certainly call him to mind as well.  Aside from the focus on Cuban cuisine, the film handles family relationships with a real sensibility, especially between father and son.  It’s one of the more enjoyable films in recent memory.

5. Selma- Whether or not Martin Luther King Jr’s family endorsed this or not, this snippet of the great man’s life is a truly powerful and important film.  Director Ava DuVernay transports us inside that moment in our country’s history so deftly that the film never becomes a fluff biopic, nor does it shy away from being critical of King, our nation’s leaders, or the ugly, hateful place America has occasionally been.  It’s also the best looking film of the year, and David Oyelowo, matching Dr. King step for step, gives one of the year’s best lead performances, Oscar snubs be damned.

4. Nightcrawler- Director Dan Gilroy’s moody, satirical melody of  American journalism and capitalism is hard to watch, sure.  The film’s “throwback-to-the-80s” score, the focus on “dirty L.A.”, the take on today’s sexual politics, and the brilliant Jake Gyllenhaal’s manic performance steal the show.  Even Rene Russo deserved awards talk for her portrayal of a news director having to push the limits to stay viable.  This is another one of ‘those’ films- the atmospheric, dark type of comedy that boosts my confidence, knowing that I’m smart enough to understand what it has to say, and mature enough to enjoy the ‘adult’ of it all.

3. Wish I Was Here Zach Braff’s funny and deeply emotional ‘thirtysomething’ version of Garden State hit home for this ‘thirtysomething’.  It’s a crisp study of a character at a crossroad in his life, and the emotion necessary to get someone to transition from one point to another.  The real relationships on display in this film carry it, but on a personal level, I feel Braff is the cinematic voice of my generation.  I simply wish he didn’t need a decade to get what he has to say to his followers.

2. Enemy- Jake Gyllenhaal gives two, yes TWO, Oscar-worthy performances in this “paranoia-du-force” thriller.  Every camera angle, every color wash, every piece of music in this film seems right in place to present a very Hitchcock-style film.  It’s a real shame that critics everywhere forgot about this, but not me.  Denis Villeneuve’s film is nearly perfect- he misleads his audience, or so we think, only to pounce on us in the end.  Few films in the past number of years have kept me thinking “what just happened” as this one does- and that ENDING.  Seriously, just see it, and tell me that it isn’t incredibly thought-provoking.

1. Gone Girl This is a flawless film.  How does a pulpy, Lifetime-esque subject become a masterpiece?  David Fincher, that’s how.  He crafts Gillian Flynn’s script into glorious intrigue, laced with multiple narrations, twists, gore, gender role commentary, and even murder mystery.  It has that Fincher-sheen, that all-too-familiar camera focus, and such a wit that you can’t help but grin, even as awful people are doing awful things.  It’s the best film of the year, and to be honest, it isn’t all that close.

*Honorable mention to: Boyhood, Begin Again, Birdman, The Babadook, Blue Ruin, Interstellar, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, How to Train Your Dragon 2, and Life Itself

2014 Films- Cumulative Ratings

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enemy gone girl nightcrawler

I’ve seen more films in 2014 than in any other year, and while that’s great, that also means I haven’t been able to flesh out the number of reviews I’ve wanted to.  That’s ok, though- I can still compile a list of this year’s films with a rating and a link to a review if I have done one.  This keeps the year in perspective, and at least gets my rating out there.  Make sure to listen to next week’s I Hate Critics podcast as myself, Bob, and Sean go over our top 10 lists for the year.

I also plan to see the following films before Oscar time: Inherent Vice, Rosewater, A Most Violent Year, Selma, Foxcatcher, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Palo Alto, The Double, The Immigrant, American Sniper, Belle, Zero Theorem, The Rover, Joe, and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.

A reminder- I rate films on a scale of 1 star (poor) to 5 stars (excellent):

Enemy- *****

Wish I Was Here– *****

Nightcrawler- *****

Selma- *****

Gone Girl– *****

Whiplash- *****

Interstellar– *****

Chef- ****1/2

The Babadook- ****1/2

Boyhood- ****1/2

Life Itself- ****1/2

Birdman- ****1/2

Begin Again- ****1/2

Inherent Vice- ****1/2

Under the Skin– ****1/2

Captain America: The Winter Soldier– ****1/2

Guardians of the Galaxy- ****

Blue Ruin- ****

How To Train Your Dragon 2- ****

Locke- ****

The Battered Bastards of Baseball- ****

Top Five- ****

X-Men: Days of Future Past– ****

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes- ****

Muppets Most Wanted– ****

The One I Love- ****

As the Palaces Burn– ****

Big Eyes- ***1/2

Neighbors- ***1/2

The Amazing Spider-Man 2– ***1/2

St. Vincent– ***1/2

Mr. Peabody & Sherman– ***1/2

Edge of Tomorrow– ***1/2

RoboCop– ***1/2

The Hundred-Foot Journey- ***1/2

The Book of Life- ***1/2

The Equalizer- ***1/2

Snowpiercer- ***1/2

Wild- ***

Frank- ***

The Drop- ***

Lucy- ***

The Other Woman– ***

Veronica Mars- ***

Unbroken- ***

Bad Words- ***

Maleficent- ***

Fury- ***

Earth to Echo- ***

Non-Stop– ***

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit– ***

Noah– **1/2

The LEGO Movie– **1/2

Big Hero 6- **1/2

The Zero Theorem- **1/2

Godzilla- **1/2

Rio 2- **1/2

Tusk- **

Winter’s Tale- **

About Alex- **

The Monuments Men– **

Transcendence– **

The Fault In Our Stars– **

Taken 3- **

Penguins of Madagascar- **

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies- **

Divergent– **

The Giver- *1/2

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1– *1/2

Into the Woods– *1/2

This Is Where I Leave You- *1/2

Dracula Untold- *1/2

Oculus– *1/2

Exodus: Gods and Kings- *

Transformers: Age of Extinction– *

Film Review- ‘Under The Skin’ (****1/2)

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Ironically, Scarlett had to play an 'alien' to better represent a 'black widow'.
Ironically, Scarlett had to play an ‘alien’ to better represent a ‘black widow’.

 

“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.