Saturday, April 5, 2014

Under the Skin

To appreciate or even find Jonathan Glazer's latest film satisfying, you need Negative Capability in spades (although certainly not to the degree you needed it for Shane Carruth's Upstream Color). You have to be able to tolerate and suspend not knowing. Forget the reviews you've read that state that Scarlett Johansson is the Woman Who Fell to Earth (in this case, Glasgow), an alien who takes on the body of a sexy woman and lures men in order to feed her planet. Whatever critics wrote that were victims of a bad press kit or were extrapolating.  Glazer makes none of this clear in his film apparently loosely based on the novel by William Faber and adapted by Walter Campbell and Glazer.  (And in comparison, Nic Roeg's 1976 Bowie vehicle The Man Who Fell to Earth seems like a mainstream movie.)

Spoilers ahead!  It does seem clear that Johansson's character (they don't have names in this film) comes from another planet, and that she has a male accomplice who rides around on a motorcycle and assists her or fixes her mishaps.  And she does indeed lure strange men into her various lairs around town, leading them into a kind of La Brea tar pit/primordial ooze where they become--well, transformed is perhaps the only accurate word, to steal from Anthony Lane in The New Yorker.  Why she's luring them remains a mystery.  She doesn't appear to feed on them (she doesn't seem to need food or drink and in fact spits up a bite of cake she tries), and if the men are sustenance for her planet, then this doesn't seem a particularly efficient way of harvesting food.  Unless there are a bunch of other aliens in other countries doing the same, of which there's no evidence.

Clearly these details aren't what interests Glazer (right), known for the films Sexy Beast, Birth, and music videos for Radiohead and Massive Attack.  That lies more in the alien's journey towards tasting what it's like to be human, towards empathy.  At the outset of the film, she watches without emotion as a couple drowns in the freezing ocean trying to save their dog, and she simply walks past their despairing abandoned baby on the beach.  After luring and killing (?) several men, one night Johansson picks up someone who looks like the Elephant Man, which seems not to faze her.  She learns that he's never had sex, nor has never even touched a woman.  She ultimately allows him to escape, but motorcycle man later disposes of the poor wretch.

In the aforementioned cake scene, Johansson's alien tries a piece of chocolate cake in a family restaurant, but fairly chokes on it and spits it out.  She wanders and is taken under wing by a kind man who is attracted to her.  He offers her tea and sympathy.  Later, his sympathy heats up and they have sex, or attempt to, but something's wrong.  As he thrusts at her, either he can't get in because she doesn't have a vagina or she's bone dry; again, it's not clear.  Johansson abruptly stops him and sits up on the side of the bed to examine her vaginal area with a light, mystified.  We remain as mystified as she.  It's a humorous moment in a film that does occasionally tend to become tedious (well, I did see it tired on a Friday night).

The movie is stunning in many ways.  It's got a compelling opening--with the spot of light that becomes an iris and the van Johansson drives wending its way down mountain roads in starkly beautiful photography (by Daniel Landin).  The unsettling score by Mica Levy (individual songs can be found on YouTube) and wall-to-wall sound design are wonderfully atmospheric.  The Scottish accents--occasionally indecipherable--add to the alien quality of the film.

Its documentary style comes from the fact that Johansson actually drove around Glasgow picking up men by asking for directions.  The front of the van was equipped with micro cameras, and Glazer and a small crew were in the back of the van, followed by another van with more crew members, some equipped to jump out and get releases signed by the pick-ups.

The style of the film could perhaps best be described as a mashup of film, documentary, and music video techniques.  It's audacious, that's for sure.

As Johansson's character becomes more vulnerable and "human," she the predator becomes a victim.  That's the beauty and the irony/tragedy that seem to capture Glazer's imagination.  She becomes a terminal case, like the men she picks up.

I can't say that I loved this film, but I can tell you that I want to see it again. It does get under one's skin.  Here's the trailer:

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Friday, March 7, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The new Wes Anderson film has what True Detective's Rust Cohle would call "scope" and "sprawl," spanning decades and invoking the darkness that periodically intrudes upon civilization via stylized versions of Stalinism, Naziism, and Communism.

But at heart it's a caper and a confection--and the confection is much larger than the tiny weapons with which some of them are literally stuffed in the film.

I prefer my historical revisionist comedies more of the Quentin Tarantino mold (e.g., Inglourious Basterds).  Not that I didn't like this film--there's nothing unlikeable about it.  It has Anderson's charm and wistful admiration of grander times.   But I didn't really love the movie, and in fact dozed off two or three times even though I went to a 7:30 show.

For me, Moonrise Kingdom was a far more engaging film, with more heart and soul. 

P.S.  The movie also reminded me a lot of Donna Tartt's novel The Goldfinch, which I'm halfway through, and feeling half-hearted about its story and writing.

Showing with the film was the hot trailer for the new Jim Jarmusch vampire film with Tilda Swinton and Tom HiIddleston, Only Lovers Left Alive (great title, too).   That one really got my attention:  

There's a sold out screening of it on 3/10 at LACMA, followed by a Q & A with Swinton and Henry Rollins.  I may just have to check out the stand by line....

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Friday, February 28, 2014

Oscar Picks 86th Academy Awards 2014

Best Picture
American Hustle

12 Years a Slave is an important, admirable film (impeccably made but conventional for Steve McQueen); The Wolf of Wall Street is a dizzying kinetic romp; Her is a wonderfully affecting modern fable.  But Hustle is a wildly entertaining movie about the American dream of reinvention and is the only film this year that compelled me to see it three times.  It's messy (deliberately and successfully "anti-structural," as Robert McKee noted--free form like the jazz David O. Russell admires) and perfect and irresistible.   Life life. Like love.  Like all the things after which we lust.

Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity

Not a great script (thin and rather superficial, I thought), but Cuarón went through what must have been imaginative heaven and hell to show us space as we have never before seen it. Even though his direction was necessarily dependent on a team of technicians and an almost co-directing collaboration with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, the film is still ultimately Cuarón's vision. Although in general I think Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) is a stunning and perhaps an even more accomplished director.

Christian Bale

Bale knocked it out of the park for me in this movie, right from the opening scene in which he applies his toupée and finishes off his coif with a generous spray of Elnett (which has made a comeback, BTW).  The photo above is from the Jeep's Blues scene, which bonds Irving and Sydney.  I think Bale may be the best actor on the planet currently.  A close second is Matthew McConaughey, who was superb in so many projects this year--Mud (under seen, unfortunately), his scene-stealing cameo in Wolf, and of course Dallas Buyers Club.  The last I had some trouble connecting with, though--I think ultimately because it stuck too close to the actual story, and hence lacked the satisfying arc that only fiction can truly offer (to wit, American Hustle, billed as "Some of This Actually Happened").   However, next year McConaughey deserves every award on the planet for his work in HBO's series True Detective.

Amy Adams

Yes, Cate Blanchett portrayed a great manic contemporary Blanche Dubois, but compared to Adams' three characters in Hustle (Sydney, Edith, and the version of Edith pretending to be in love with Richie), Blanchett's performance seemed one note and over-the-top.  Whether in Halston or hot rollers, Adams distinguished the role(s) with her range, restraint, and naked talent.

Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave

Fassbender astonished me with his performance in this film, even more so than in Steve McQueen's previous film with him, Shame.  (Fassbender was also excellent in this year's The Counselor.)  A close second for me in the Supporting Actor category is Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, who is favored to win.  And I have to say that Bradley Cooper was also great in Hustle.

Jennifer Lawrence

Lupita Nyong'o was very good, but her role in 12 Years a Slave had built-in sympathy. Lawrence was hysterically inspired good. My microwave will heretofore be referred to as "the science oven" as a result of the scene depicted above.  And even though the kiss was Amy Adams' idea, Lawrence executed it with such aplomb!

John Ridley, "12 Years a Slave"

This was a tough decision, because I also admired Terence Winter's adaptation of The Wolf of Wall Street and the Linklater/Delpy/Hawke collaboration in Before Midnight.  But Ridley's work was ultimately the most impressive, IMHO.

Spike Jonze, Her

There was simply no contest in this category.  The story was fresh, imaginative, moving, and soulful.

Ernest & Celestine

I picked this simply because I like the minimalist water color palette.  I generally have no interest in animation (or musicals) and haven't seen any of the nominated films.

Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis

Just look at the lighting, color, composition...throughout this movie. Stunning.

Michael Wilkinson, American Hustle

Sexy, fun clothes driven by character.  The costumes were characters. They told a story in themselves, evolving and becoming more stylish as the characters, were, well, devolving.

20 Feet from Stardom

My only beef is that Jo Lawry (left) was in the film but not profiled.  I liked Dave Grohl's Sound City doc better, but that wasn't nominated.

Christopher Rouse, Captain Phillips

Taut, tense, thrilling--Rouse's work was the perfect match for Paul Greengrass' documentary style direction.  A close second was the editing team behind American Hustle:  Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, and Alan Baumgarten.

The Great Beauty

Ah, Jep Gambardella (played by Tony Servillo) and la dolce vita in Paulo Sorrentino's film!  I also really liked Thomas Vinterberg's The Hunt with Mads Mikkelsen.

The Dallas Buyers Club

Frankly, I would have picked American Hustle for this category, but it wasn't nominated.

The Moon Song, Her
Music by Karen O; lyrics by Karen O and Spike Jonze

Simple, haunting, lovely.  See their performance here.

Steven Price, Gravity

You can hear the entire score here.  One commentator refers to it as "heroin in audio format."  Perhaps a bit overstated, but it's damned good.  My second choice is the Her soundtrack by Arcade Fire (William [aka Win] Butler and Owen Pallett).

American Hustle:  Judy Becker, Production Designer; Heather Loeffler, Set Decoration 

The obvious choice is Catherine Martin for The Great Gatsby.  Her work is period (which always wins) and flashy; it dazzles and almost overpowers all else--except her equally dazzling costumes.  Don't get me wrong--I marveled at Martin's work.  But American Hustle's period sets complement more quietly, effectively, without calling excessive attention to themselves. They're intrinsically integrated into and serve the story.  That to me is what great production design is about.  Think of Blade Runner--its design is distinctive, but we can't separate the dancer from the dance, so to speak. It's of a whole.

Glenn Freemantle, Gravity

So say the predictors.  I don't have enough knowledge of the field to guess.

Gravity:  Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff, and Peter F. Kurland

Again, I defer to the predictors.

Gravity:  Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, David Shirk, and Neil Corbould

This film looked unlike any space film we had seen before.  That was riveting.


Life is too short, so I didn't see any of the animated, documentary, or live-action shorts.

The Academy Awards broadcast is Sunday, March 2.  (And don't forget the Indepdendent Spirit Awards the day before!)

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