I LOVED reading your review of This is 40, Glenn. Especially as right before choosing This is 40 on OnDemand, I'd been watching Schindler's List on Sundance (and have to admit I had to turn it off to look for lighter fare) ! LOL in light of what you wrote.
I've been eagerly anticipating UNDER THE SKIN ever since I read Michael Faber's 2000 novel. The tale of an alien woman on a strange journey through the Scottish countryside, it was a fascinating jumble of serial killer/sci-fi/environmentalist storytelling. As good as its setup was, the remaining two thirds of the novel fell a little flat for me, with its overarching themes.
Jonathan Glazer (SEXY BEAST, BIRTH), returning to filmmaking after a ten year absence, and screenwriter Walter Campbell seem to truly understand the alluring mysteries of the novel's first third and have jettisoned the rest to create a masterpiece of an art film. Eschewing its global perspective, the film turns inward and explores the true nature of what it's like to be human.
Scarlett Johannson, who is maturing into one of the most stunning, risk-taking actors of her generation, plays the unnamed alien with an eerie mix of blankness and creepy, seductive cunning. The novel presents her as a deformed woman covered in scars and sporting bottlecap glasses. Her car pedals compensate for the fact that one leg is shorter than the other, her "otherness" prominently on display. Johannson isn't required to lean on such visual crutches. Instead, her alien, who wears trashy mall clothes, a black wig and red lipstick, is conveyed through her otherwordly stares and appropriations of human interaction.
We follow her as she picks up stray men, most of whom meet an inexplicably odd and shocking fate. Unlike the book, her motives are left to the imagination. Nothing, in fact, is spoon-fed to you. The "whys" and "hows" are left up to you. The film feels like a wholly unique mix of THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, the little seen 2000 Portuguese film O FANTASMA, with a little bit of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY thrown in there just to further disorient the audience.
Built on repetitive rhythms and shots, the story unfolds slowly, building from one sequence to the next to produce an unsettling vibe. Mica Levi's phenomenal score (reminiscent at times of the creepy, screechy strings heard in THE EXORCIST, coupled with Johnnie Burns' singular sound design strongly contribute to the overall mood. Daniel Landin's cinematography produces one memorable image after another. This is hypnotic, challenging, artful cinema of the highest order.
Johannson, in a mostly wordless performance, knows just how to use her body and eyes to convey desire and the ability to be desired. Many of the actors used here were filmed surreptitiously with release forms secured after the fact. It's astounding considering the VERY revealing requirements. The scenes in which these men meet their fates are a mix of astounding beauty, carnal, hypnotic desire, seductive percussion, and mind-bending production design.
Many will lament the film's complete lack of conventional narrative or simple explanations. What may seem boring to some may be profoundly mesmerizing to others. Rather than say something about our dying planet, UNDER THE SKIN says something about us - our savagery and our beauty. This is exciting, challenging cinema and is a must-see for anyone who wishes to celebrate the pushing of an envelope. Image for image, sequence for sequence, this is a work of high art - from the swirling air on a landscape, a crying baby, a motorcycle speeding through a countryside, a deformed man being touched for the first time, a tear streaming from a dead woman's face, lipstick being applied in a hand mirror, flames on a wintry landscape, a body shockingly transforming, a stream of blood disappearing into the void, an eye being formed. Never has a final, haunting image of an ashy snowstorm been filled with such glorious ambiguity, forcing its audience to do a little work. At the risk of sounding like Peter Travers from Rolling Stone, UNDER THE SKIN means to get "under your skin" and it does.
Remakes don't tend to excite, especially when the original was just fine on its own. A do-over on a terrible film is another story, but I have to admit to being a little excited when I heard Jose Padilha was directing the remake of Paul Verhoeven's 1987 classic. Padilha, a Brazilian filmmaker, impressed me greatly with his ELITE SQUAD movies, filled as they were with visceral, impactful action. Additionally, THE KILLING's Joel Kinnaman would be slipping into the lead role, and I have found him to be a powerful, hugely empathetic presence.
It was obvious to me that the reboot would make the original look clunky when looking at the huge leaps and bounds we've seen in effects work, and that is very much the case here. I can also appreciate that the remake is going for an entirely different tone. Whereas the 1987version was a sly, humorous and satirical look at corporate greed and BIG BROTHER politics, the remake plays it straight as a largely serious explosion of action. As such, it's a flat, boring, painfully repetitive exercise in boom-bang-kapow.
Initially, I thought there was promise as Samuel L. Jackson is a pundit/reporter who frames the film with his SNAKES ON A PLANE/DEEP BLUE SEA speechifying. His reporting leads us to an effective sequence in Tehran in which we're introduced to OmniCorp's experimental robot police state. Reminiscent of DISTRICT 9, I thought we were in for a fresh spin on totalitarianism. The intelligence pretty much ends here.
Cue Kinnaman as Alex Murphy, a cop who is nearly decimated in an attack. Looking to launch their robots in the U.S., OmniCorp identifies Murphy as a prime candidate - happy husband/father, all American, yadda yadda. The aftermath of said attack is brutal and provides for some memorable imagery. For a second there, I really felt for Murphy's plight. What follows, however, for the remainder of the film is our title character cycling around and shooting people...nonstop. THE END. It's a numbing experience. There's nothing left to say about it. See the original and ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN and you'll thank me later.
Fans of David Cronenberg, David Lynch, and Stanley Kubrick, beware! Denis Villeneuve is bucking for your weird little crowns, and his most recent film, ENEMY, is his calling card. Jake Gyllenhaal, who also starred in Villeneuve's last film, PRISONERS, plays a disheveled college professor (are there any other kinds?) who discovers his doppelganger. I won't reveal too much more about the story as it would spoil things, but this is a film all about tone.
Things start out strangely enough as we witness a sexual fetish party in progress which was highly reminiscent of the orgy scenes in EYES WIDE SHUT and the nightclub scene in MULHOLLAND DRIVE. Next we meet Adam, the professor, and his unsatisfied girlfriend, played by Melanie Laurent. Something seems to be missing in his drone of a life. We hear it in the lectures he gives about Hegel's theory of the modern state, or in the dispassionate way he makes love to his girlfriend.
Soon enough, his life is turned upside down by the discovery of Anthony, a cocky, bit part actor, also played by Gyllenhaal. Anthony is married to his pregnant wife, a terrific Sarah Gadon. What happens after these two look-alikes meet is intense, ambiguous, and fascinating.
Like PRISONERS, however, Villeneuve could benefit from some judicious editing, as his style is somewhat plodding. Also, Gyllenhaal's professor character could stand to be a little more articulate, which would have moved the story along a lot quicker. There were many scenes that could have been shorter had he just said what was on his mind instead of stammering dramatically. Minor quibbles, because this is intelligent, controlled cinema.
Utilizing stately compositions and constantly pushing-in cameras, Villeneuve knows what he's doing. His work is mesmerizing, unsettling and downright weird. He and writer Javier Gullon have a lot of lofty themes on their minds regarding chaos theory, identity politics, and female fear. Stripped of its conceits, one could argue that this is a film about wanting and accepting a relationship change. One could pick apart its meanings around a dozen watercoolers and never quite get it right, but this is a film with some startling images: a spider looms over the Toronto skyline, a naked woman in a bird mask walks upside-down through a hallway, and the final image is worthy of a massive jump out of one's seat.
While Gyllenhaal does some terrific work here, delineating beautifully between his two characters, the real star here is Gadon. She says more with a look than most actors do with a 3 page monologue. In one fantastic bedroom scene, she stares Gyllenhaal down and without saying a word, you know what she knows and how she feels about it. I'm looking forward to more from this emotionally raw actor.
ENEMY is a little too pretentious and sluggish at times, but most challenging cinema tends to go that way. What it all means is up to you. The filmmakers don't spoon feed their audience, so fans of unambiguous, tying things up in a little bow storytelling should stay far away. The rest can enjoy this odd little puzzler.
There are two kinds of people in the world - those who love rubik's cubes and those who do not. By the same token, one could separate the masses by those who love Wes Anderson's films and those who do not. The groupings would be the same, I have no doubt. I can appreciate geometry and visual twists and turns as much as the next guy, but without an emotional connection, it's just something cool to admire.
Ever since his debut with RUSHMORE, Anderson has always offered up deadpan performances and droll storytelling coupled with a striking and singular visual vocabulary. Drop the needle on any 10 seconds of any of his films and you will know it's one of his. That's a rare gift amongst any filmmaker living or dead and one to be celebrated, if only he would expand his lane. With the exception of THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX, I feel like Anderson has been stuck in the same wheelhouse throughout his entire career. There could be worse places to be stuck (Michael Bay anyone?), but stuck he has remained. He's the Aimee Mann of film directors churning out his predictably twee works of art year after year.
Such is the case (mostly) with THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, although this time out, he has a truly wonderful performance from his lead actor (Ralph Fiennes) and a slapstick caper genre which makes the lack of depth entirely forgivable. It's possible to enjoy this delirious ride without harping on its shallowness.
This is the story of a concierge (Fiennes) and his young trainee Zero (Tony Revolori doing a variation on Pedro from NAPOLEON DYNAMITE) who become involved in the theft of a painting and the myriad of events leading to its recovery. Fiennes gives a rare, joyous performance of an unfailingly polite man who only lets his rage out in one astonishing confessional scene. Fiennes has never been so loose and delightful, breaking through the Anderson veneer to make his character truly loveable.
The rest of the cast, however, complete with enough Academy Awards or nominations to create an Agent frenzy over dressing room sizes, give classic Wes Anderson drollness and little else. I hope they had a good time playing this type of comedy, but the standout scenes are about the beautifully crafted miniatures rather than any performance nuances. I don't know that Adrien Brody knew that a horizontal dolly shot of him walking down a hall would look so cool on a geometric level, but that's where the pleasures lie. Put Fiennes and Revolori in an alpine ski chase or on a mountain gondola and you have sumptuously thrilling sequences guaranteed to make you smile. I also loved the extended prison escape section of the film for its swooping and gliding up and down the different levels of the structure, something Anderson has turned into a signature.
There IS an attempt to make the film into something deeper, with its double wraparounds about the value of storytelling. F. Murray Abraham and Jude Law bring genuine warmth to their scenes as our de facto narrators, making this veritable pop-up book come to life into a sweet-natured treatise on the value of a good storyteller.
THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL makes you hungry to read a great adventure novel, and that's not a bad thing at all, but I truly hope Wes Anderson decides (and soon) to go all out and make a simple, emotionally naked, humanistic film without all his usual visual crutches. It may fail and/or disappoint his core fan base, but the guy could use a stretch, no?
I think we've reached the juncture in our popular culture where people love to see stupid movies so that afterwards, over fancy mixed drinks with bitters and giant dice-shaped cubes, they can enjoy the sport of ironically ripping them apart to demonstrate their superiority to them. Entertainment 2014-style!
NON-STOP is a perfect example of such a film. It's an efficient and reliable January/February programmer in which the king of the studio winter doldrums, Liam Neeson, gets to exact revenge against something, which in this case happens to be airline terrorism.
Ticking clock thriller whodunits happen to be my favorite guilty pleasure. Even if I don't end up seeing a movie in this genre, I still want to hear the outcome to see if someone came up with a clever twist on things. I never saw PERFECT STRANGER with Halle Berry and Bruce Willis, but Wikipedia'd the hell out of it to find out the big reveal. I'm nerdy that way, I guess.
So I sat in my seat, popcorn at the ready, waiting to see how was gonna piss off Liam Neeson's Bill Marks first. The opening images signaled the first of many clichés. Neeson, alone in his car, pours alcohol into his coffee and downs it. He's got demons, and they're gonna be distilled and shorthanded for you right now! We soon find out he's boarding a plane to London and doesn't really want to go. As he goes through boarding procedures, we meet the overstuffed cast, but instead of a LOVE BOAT full of C-Listers, this group has serious cred: Julianne Moore, Corey Stoll, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Linus Roache, and Oscar winner, Lupita Nyong'o, to name a few. Relative unknown, Nate Parker, is given a terrible Bell Biv Devoe haircut, which made him more memorable than his celebrated cast-mates. I can't blame any of them from wanting to be in a sure-fire hit, the obvious motivation to explain their slumming in such a forgettable yarn.
To be fair, this is lean, taut filmmaking, beautifully shot by Flavio Labiano, who did similar great work on UNKNOWN. A fan of shallow focus and twisty/turny steadicam shots, Labiano and Director Jaume Collet-Serra make good use of the confined spaces of a jet. Soon after takeoff, Marks, a Federal Air Marshall, gets a text from someone on board who threatens to kill a passenger every 20 minutes until he or she gets $150 million wired into an account. How this plays out is part of the film's charm, as there is a whiff of originality at play. I also enjoyed the way something as static as text messaging was made cinematic. Unfortunately, we're made to believe Marks is a terrible law enforcer so that every bad decision he makes is credible. It felt like a convenient, easy out.
Regardless, there's a new twist every 10 minutes or so, which definitely keeps one guessing. The outcome makes little sense, and I defy anyone to construct a believable timeline out of the sequence of events. (Side note: GAWKER post waiting to happen) The big reveal also comes with two long monologues, which is insane considering the time-sensitive circumstances, but whatever...actors may want to use these as audition monologues in the future, which will put a smile on bored Casting Directors' faces the world over!
NON-STOP is certainly a fun, "non-stop" thrill ride, but like the transatlantic flight it highlights, you'll want to forget it as soon as you sip some tea in a lovely Covent Garden café afterwards.