‘Under the Skin’ Unsettling But Interesting; ‘Captain America’ Lives Large

 

 

under the skin

MOVIE REVIEW – ‘Under the Skin’

Movie Info

An alien in human form is on a journey through Scotland.

R

1 hr. 47 min.

Science Fiction & Fantasy

Scarlett Johansson Is a Mysterious Man-Killer in Under the Skin

Director Jonathan Glazer’s latest film, his first in 10 years, is a puzzling and creepy look at an alien entity hunting men in Scotland. Starring Scarlett Johansson!

by Richard Lawson www.vanityfair.com

In Jonathan Glazer’s striking, unsettling new film Under the Skin, Scarlett Johansson plays Laura, a black-haired siren who lures unsuspecting Scotsmen to their dooms. She’s a succubus or an alien or something. It’s never explicitly stated in the film, though the press notes refer to her as an alien, as the character was in the original novel. But in terms of the actual film, we never get any real confirmation that she is from outer space. Just that she’s on the prowl, bringing lads back to her house, where they find themselves sunk in a black puddle of goo and slowly sucked dry of nutrients. Again, or something.

Under the Skin is certainly not a straightforward film. Never stopping to explain itself, Glazer’s alternately dreamy, creepy, and plodding movie is less concerned with happenings than with mood and sensation. And it creates those quite well. The Scotland of Under the Skin is relentlessly gray and dismal, a tangle of anonymous roads and grimy semi-urban menace. Even a lovely windswept beach becomes a place of horror; in one scene Laura watches, expressionless, as a pair of people drown, standing on the rocks and watching with serene detachment. (This was, to me, the most terrifying and beguiling of the film’s several morbid set pieces. Until the very end, anyway.) But this is not a leering, misanthropic ugliness that Glazer is trading in. Instead, he’s using it to highlight the common decency of the everyday people this creature walks (or drives) among. These people are friendly, helpful, fragile, horny, lonely. They’re, y’know, human.

The obvious metaphor here is that Laura the alien is trying to blend in with everyone else, while still seeking recognition and connection, same as all of us real people are. The trick of the film is that they used cleverly hidden cameras and no small amount of guerrilla bravery to send Johansson out among the real masses to shoot various scenes. Several of the men she meets in the film were just regular blokes who were excited that a pretty woman (whom they didn’t recognize as a movie star) had stopped to chat them up or ask them for a favor. This gimmick, which is blended in pretty seamlessly with the staged parts, allows for a few satisfyingly earnest, delicate breaks from the film’s general air of chilly sleekness.

There is a thematic line running throughout the film that seems interested in Scarlett Johansson as Movie Star, and the results of dressing her up and trying to pass her off in the world of normals certainly says something both disquieting and comforting about the isolation of celebrity. Johansson has very little to say (when she does, she speaks in a credible English, not Scottish, accent) and spends most of her time looking dazed in her bright cherry-red lipstick. Her hair (or, her wig) is cut into an 80s poof, which complements her acid-washed jeans and ill-fitting leopard-print, faux-fur jacket. It’s an awkward look, almost mocking in its approximation of the va-va-voom. But it also makes Laura oddly sympathetic. She’s sexy, yes, but the tacky getup makes her seem just the faintest bit lost, even pathetic. In one scene, Laura trips and falls and some real-life people rush to her aid. The scene was being surreptitiously filmed by Glazer, but a civilian also caught the moment on camera and those images became a popular “Scarlett Johansson falling down” meme, thereby proving Glazer and Johansson’s despondent point about what her fame, with its odd mix of sympathy and scorn, has come to mean.

But a movie this quietly insistent ultimately has to become something more than an ironic take on the nature of celebrity. And Under the Skin does, I think. This is a movie that at its most sensitive is about loneliness, and at its bleakest and most searching is a look at the mechanics of sexual predation.

From some angles, the film could be seen as a flipping of the script—here the men are the victims, objects sought out for their helplessness, punished for their sexuality. (They were quite literally asking for it, in this case.) But the movie never gets all the way around to a full reversal. By the film’s startling climax, Under the Skin is certainly and starkly saying something about the world’s treatment of women—even a man-eating extraterrestrial is eventually subject to the whims of rape culture, pursued and controlled and objectified by men. Glazer seems to be arguing that this is a human inevitability—which is either grimly sympathetic or troublingly dismissive, depending on how you look at it. I didn’t sense any antipathy toward women in this, or in Glazer’s last effort, 2004’s bizarre and hypnotic Birth, so I’m choosing to believe that he’s being urgent about these issues instead of flippant. But I’m still not quite sure.

Much of this film is disorienting and withholding. The music, by young wunderkind Mica Levi, is prickly and playfully eerie, but it keeps us at an arm’s length, its trills and trickles never quite coalescing into a real melody. The cinematography, by Daniel Landin, is a dreary wonder, and by the heart-stopping finale has become a marvel of dark imagination. But it’s frequently cold and staid, clinical in its gaze. Perhaps we in the audience are the real aliens, observing this strange and measured series of pictures and sounds, trying to decipher what it all might mean. Trouble is, the film’s bewitching outer layer is only stripped away at the very end, sending us stumbling back into the real world wondering, with some frustration, about what was underneath, that thing we glimpsed, all too briefly, back there in the dark.

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capt america

MOVIE REVIEW – ‘CAPTAIN AMERICA: The Winter Soldier’

Movie Info

Steve Rogers continues his journey as the super-powered American soldier who’s grasping to find his place in a modern world after being frozen in ice since WWII with this Marvel Studios sequel.

PG-13

2 hr. 16 min.

Action & Adventure, Science Fiction & Fantasy

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: Film Review

by Todd McCarthy www.hollywoodreporter.com

A less super Marvel player steps up.

Captain America may not flex as much box-office muscle as his Marvel stablemates Iron Man and Thor, but there’s a steadfast band of fans who pledge allegiance to Captain America: The First Avenger as possibly the best of all the Marvel superhero films — other than The Avengers. These true-blue enthusiasts will not be disappointed in this second entry in the series, which takes the bold (for Marvel) step of reducing CGI spectacle to a relative minimum in favor of reviving the pleasures of hard-driving old-school action, surprising character development and intriguing suspense.

‘Captain America’ Trailer Remade with Children (Video)Marvel Teases the Death of Wolverine’Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ Writers Talk ‘Age of Ultron,’ Superman-Batman Face-Off If The First Avenger was a solid World War II action film with a Hydrated twist, Captain America: The Winter Soldier has one foot in superhero territory but the other in Washington, D.C., Cold War spyland. The first series entry grossed $371 million worldwide and this one could well do more.

Notable for having induced Robert Redford to take a (significant) role in the sort of blockbuster franchise that he has studiously avoided throughout his illustrious career, the film actually uses an important aspect of the veteran star’s iconography as stylistic inspiration, that being the ethos surrounding Sydney Pollack’s 1975 Redford-starring espionage thriller Three Days of the Condor. And like its hero, at least one of the story’s villains also has his roots in a real historical conflict, one of the factors that provides the cartoon-based characters with a bit more resonance and real-world weight than is the norm.

When last seen in his own film, in 2011, Captain America, aka U.S. Army officer Steve Rogers, had just dispatched the malignant Nazi offshoot Hydra, only to then be frozen in ice. With his splendid physique looking none the worse some 70 years later, Rogers (Chris Evans) has some amusing cultural adjustments to make, but his natural instinct to remain an analog rather than digital kind of guy corresponds nicely with the appealing throwback nature of this outing.

This is not to say that the film is devoid of major hardware. The big event on the boards for SHIELD is the imminent launch of three giant “helicarrier” gun ships that can stay aloft indefinitely and are so loaded with weapons that they promise to render all previous modes of warfare obsolete. Eying the progress from their new D.C. highrise offices are organization director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Redford’s Alexander Pierce, a SHIELD luminary who also heads the World Security Council.

From the start, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who wrote the first Captain America adventure as well as Pain & Gain and The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, resourcefully shuffle the dramatic deck, connecting important dots from before (the presumed demise of Hydra, Rogers visiting his 1940s flame played by Hayley Atwell, now a bedridden invalid), developing the enjoyable relationship between Rogers and Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, introducing doubts about the true allegiances of certain SHIELD officers and gradually building up to the full emergence of Captain America’s new nemesis, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), whom Marvel fans know is the reincarnation of Rogers’ closest wartime buddy, Bucky Barnes.

Featuring these and other opponents of sometimes-obscure identity is more than enough to keep Captain America: The Winter Soldier brimming with vehicular chases, surprise attacks, shootouts, fist fights, Energy Baton takedowns, miraculous rescues and surprising demises. The action is voluminous, and when it involves machines, it’s fine. However, when humans go at it one on one, directors Anthony and Joe Russo (Welcome to Collinwood on the big screen, Arrested Development on TV) go nuts, forsaking credible and exciting action within the frame for overcutting of such intensity that you can’t tell what’s going on. It’s as if the filmmakers were obsessed with making Paul Greengrass look slow-footed. The intent may have been to create an impressionistic account of action rather than a lucid one, but it winds up looking not only confusing but like a cheat, as you can’t believe anything real is happening; all you see is cuts, not physical contact.

Fortunately, the story develops some genuine intrigue; as in the best such yarns, it’s hard to know who’s really pulling the strings and who, other than the characters who wear costumes, is sincere and who might be up to no good. For sheer plotting and audience involvement, this is a notch above any of the other Avengers-feeding Marvel entries, the one that feels most like a real movie rather than a production line of ooh-and-ahh moments for fanboys.

After looking rather like the odd man out in The Avengers with his campy old costume and less-than-super powers compared to his cohorts, Steve Rogers gets a new outfit and asserts himself as a likeable figure more than capable of carrying a huge enterprise like this on his muscular frame. A little self-deprecation can take you a long way with a character like this, and Evans delivers it, along with the wholesome and genuine sense of virtue that’s at the core of this ever-youthful wartime hero.

Evans and Johansson exhibit very good onscreen chemistry, and their banter is charged with a fun flirtatiousness. Anthony Mackie flies aboard in the new, sometimes-goofy role of a former paratrooper who, upon donning a giant pair of wings, becomes The Falcon, able to swoop around dramatically when not struggling with the mechanics of his rig. Stan’s Winter Soldier, outfitted with a devastating metal left arm, proves a well-matched, and equally good-looking, antagonist for his old friend.

But from a dramatic point of view, the greatest interest lies with Jackson and Redford, two great veterans whose presence lends weight to the fantastical proceedings and whose characters take some interesting twists and turns before it’s all over. Their roles are hardly demanding or multidimensional, but both actors seems invested in what they’re doing and are fun to watch in this context.

When it comes, the spectacle is, in a word, large. For fans who might forget to stay to the very end of a Marvel film, there are not one but two teasers embedded in the end credits, one at the beginning and another at the conclusion.

 

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