Under The Skin – Film Review

 

In Michael Faber’s satirical 2000 science-fiction novel Under the Skin there’s never a doubt as to what is going on.  An alien is sent to Earth by a business conglomerate to drug humans, then beef them up where they can be harvested and turned into meat for consumption.  It was an alien form of factory farming, only the product was humans, not animals.

Filmmaker Janothan Glazer has taken this premise, stripped it of all narrative clarity and turned it into something of a minimalist art-house project where you kind of get the idea of what might be going on, but you’re never really sure, and the film is telling you nothing.

Scarlett Johansson is an alien being who takes the form of an attractive young woman then roams the streets of Scotland looking for men to seduce and kill.  Why she’s killing them is never explained.  There’s a single shot of what might be a flowing river of blood, flesh and organs running along a chute and disappearing into a void, but like everything else in the film, you’re never really clear. 

The credits list the alien character as someone called Laura, though the name is never mentioned.  The way the woman/thing goes about her business is to drive around in a van where she quietly observes the Scottish working class in the streets around her.  Once a potential victim is chosen, she pulls up alongside, gives the impression she’s lost and asks unsuspecting men for direction.  Why Scotland for its setting is unclear, and why an American actor playing an alien who speaks with a polite, southern English accent in a highland setting is also unclear.  But then again, so is almost everything else.

Do you have a family?” she asks, as if interviewing.  Are you by yourself?”  The fact that she looks like Scarlett Johansson ensues that strangers will always respond.

In the 2013 Ken Loach drama/comedy from Scotland, Angels’ Share, the Scottish brogue was evidently considered too hard for an American audience to follow, so the film was subtitled.  The characters in Under the Skin speak with the thickest of local accents in a naturalistic manner with no attempt to make themselves understood by those not familiar with the area, and there are no subtitles.  You might catch a meaning here or there, but generally a Stateside audience is going to have trouble. 

There’s an interesting turn when one of the alien’s victims – a lonely young man with extreme facial deformities – is lured into her lair only to escape.  There’s a feeling that the alien has purposely allowed him to leave, but there’s never a moment where we see her taking pity on his condition and setting him free; we have to assume she’s let him go.  From there, the alien studies her own human form in the mirror then goes into some form of depression and becomes catatonic, wondering aimlessly through the countryside, never responding to anything or anyone around her.  Like everything else in the film, we assume she’s catatonic, though considering dialog is at a minimum, the condition is also difficult to tell.

There are times when the ambiguous nature of the 1976 Nicholas Roeg film The Man Who Fell To Earth springs to mind.  You wonder if director Glazer was in some way attempting to capture that same sense of intentional vagueness of an alien on Earth with Under the Skin, only where Roeg’s movie was shot widescreen with brightly lit colors, the overall look to Glazer’s film is one of dull, grunginess where Scotland is portrayed as a place of perpetual clouds, wind, rain and fog and where the faces of local residents look pinched and hardened due to the continual cold. 

The end result feels like a movie-making experiment; an exercise in mood and atmosphere while playing games with a traditional narrative structure but failing to make a cohesive whole in the process.  Despite the acclaim it’s received in some quarters, particularly in Europe and in festival circuits, you’ll either love its style or hate it, there’s no in-between.

MPAA rating:  R     Length:  108 Minutes    Overall Rating:  4 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Dom Hemingway – Film Review

Dom Hemingway is the kind of bloke you don’t want to know.  Violent, dangerous and uncompromising in every respect, Hemingway is the sort of shallow, jack-the-lad, criminal who never quits.  If you were unlucky enough to get into a fight with him you’re never going to win, even if you sent him to the hospital on the first round.  All he’d do is recover, get back on his feet and come after you again.  It would never end.

Jude Law plays Hemingway and from the beginning you can see the kind of dedication he’s put into the role.  First, his weight: Normally appearing slight of build, the actor has added the pounds and a certain amount of muscle, and even though he remains reasonably svelte when compared to others around him you can see the extra mass, and it’s imposing.  Second, the accent:  Hemingway is from the East End of London, he’s a cockney, but unlike Bert the Chimney Sweep, Hemingway’s delivery is as vicious as his character.  Think Bob Hoskins at his scariest in The Long Good Friday, then turn it up a few notches.

It’s more than likely audiences will know where they stand with the both the character and the film during the first five minutes.  Here, in a stationary head and shoulders shot, with Hemingway looking directly into the camera, and seemingly directly at us, the thug spouts an abhorrent ode to the love of his life – his private appendage – and he presents it with all the passion and relish he can muster.  It’s a revolting assault on the ears before you even realize what you’re listening to, but it’s intentional.  The style of Hemingway’s speech and the pure, unadulterated joy he appears to savor when talking of his private parts sets the tone for both his character and the film itself.  At this point you’ll either switch off and walk out or sit back and get ready for what you know is going to be one uncomfortable ride.

 

Hemingway is a safe-cracker and has served twelve years in a British prison.  Upon release, the first thing he does is go after the man who moved in with Hemingway’s now deceased, ex-wife.  Even though he was already divorced, that matters little to Hemingway.  The gangster proceeds to beat the unfortunate step-father to Hemingway’s daughter to a bloody pulp in full view of the unfortunate man’s co-workers, none of whom would ever report the incident to the police; they know Hemingway would come after them if any of them even dreamed of mentioning it.  I should kill you,” Hemingway snarls into the ear of the practically unconscious man, “But I fancy a pint instead.  And off to the pub for a drink he goes.

Richard E. Grant plays Hemingway’s best friend, Dickie, and together they head over the channel to France in order for Hemingway to collect the money he’s owed for keeping his mouth shut, something that’s actually hard to believe considering that the character can’t seem to quit talking. When it looks as though Hemingway is about to blow another good thing in front of a foreign, criminal boss, Dickie tells him, “I’m not burying your body out here.” He then adds, “I’m too old and I didn’t bring the right shoes.”

As expected, things go wrong.  Hemingway’s share of the loot goes missing and a car wreck – effectively filmed as bodies artistically fly through the air with a balletic, slow-motion grace that is both horrifying and funny – changes everything.  All Hemingway can now do is return to London and try to reconnect with his daughter.

I’m a peasant,” Hemmingway describes himself as his downs another pint.  A surf with a strong liver.” But his cocksure opinion of himself will later change when he stands back, takes a breath and sees how his worthless life is spiraling out of control, and the only one he has to blame is himself.  Later, when Hemingway watches his now grown daughter sing with a band at a local pub, you can see he’s reflecting on what he has lost.  He even sheds a tear. The problem is, you don’t buy it for a second.  Long before there’s a hint of him reuniting with what he thought he had lost, you just don’t care. 

 

Dom Hemingway has energy, the kind that ensures that once it has your attention, like an ugly wreck at the side of the road, you can’t turn away, but it’s full of unlikable characters in nasty situations continually spouting an unending array of verbal filth that after awhile makes it hard to care about anything.  The film asks a lot when it wants us to feel something for Hemingway’s progression – there’s even an upbeat ending which it doesn’t earn – but the truth is you wouldn’t want to know anything about him in the first place.

Plus, despite Law’s commitment to the role – he really does go full-throttle throughout – the actor is miscast.  It’s an admirable performance, but there’s still something missing.  Having grown-up in an East of London environment with a continual attempt to steer clear of Hemingway’s all too familiar type, there’s a look in the actor’s eyes that’s missing.  It’s the wide-eyed look of rage and madness that will never find peace – it’s ingrained – and Law’s Hemingway doesn’t have it.

 MPAA Rating:  R   Length: 93 Minutes     Overall Rating:  5 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Oculus – Film Review

 

It’s difficult to say why a mirror can be creepy, but mirrors can.  No doubt about it.

In Oculus, the new creepy horror from writer/director Mike Flanagan, something happened ten years ago to the fairly ordinary Russell family after they moved in to their new house, but we can’t quite tell what.  All we know is that it had something to do with that large, antique mirror just positioned on the wall in dad’s office.  Like pieces of a jigsaw that never quite form a picture, we have a fair idea of what might have happened, but it takes a while to put everything together.  Oculus burns slowly.

You promised me you’d never forget what really happened,” Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) says to her brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites), moments after he’s released from an institution.  I was ten years old,” protests Tim.

 

Things get even creepier when Kaylie buys that same, antique mirror at an auction.  It appears she’s been hunting it down, convinced that the murders of her parents ten years earlier had nothing to do with her brother – that’s the reason, we find out, he’s been in a mental facility – but everything to do with that creepy mirror.

Hello again,” she says to the mirror after taking it home and putting it back on the wall in the same position where it used to hang.  You must be hungry.”

What follows is a straight forward tale of evil influences presented in a complicated way.  There are flashbacks that we’re never quite sure are flashbacks until we realize that the playful children having fun in their new home are really Tim and Kaylie as they were ten years ago.  It takes time to get used to the uneven rhythm of the film.

 

As things progress and the story takes shape, we learn that the mirror has actually been around since the eighteenth century.  Kaylie is convinced that over the years, the antique has been responsible for at least forty-five deaths, including mom and dad, and she’s determined to find out how and why.  Supernatural forces reside in the mirror,” she claims, but her brother isn’t buying it, and for awhile the film presents an element of doubt as to whether it’s all in Kaylie’s mind or if the mirror really is evil. 

The way the film becomes complicated is how it presents the two time differences – the events of ten years ago and what’s happening today.  What was a flashback then becomes a parallel story; then the two time differences seem to overlap where characters from yesterday are looking directly at events of today, and that’s where it starts to lose you.  It seems clever at first, then it feels a little too clever.  Director Flanagan already had a good thing going; it’s a disappointment he overreached.

 

Oculus makes you feel uneasy throughout, and in this respect, it works; there are good chills and genuinely spooky images, though it demands patience.  Plus, the performances from all are particularly good.  Scottish actor Karen Gillan, better known as Amy from TV’s Dr. Who, makes an impressive debut in her first big American film and pulls off a decent American accent in the process.  But the film eventually falls prey to many horror/chillers of its kind and ultimately feels like a cheat.  The story behind the history of the mirror is never fully explored when you want to know more – it’s a lot easier to create scares when you don’t have to explain why or how things are happening – and the climax, where history repeats itself and presumably will continue to do so, is a let down considering how far you’ve come to get to that point.  It leaves you dissatisfied, perhaps even annoyed.  You’ll always find an exception, but in general, horror films –even potentially good ones like this – never quite know how to end. 

 MPAA Rating:  R     Length:  105 Minutes   Overall Rating:  6 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Jodorowsky’s Dune – Film Review

 

At the age of eighty-five, controversial filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky is every bit as passionate about a film he never made as he was during the seventies when he was preparing to make it.

“I wanted to make a film that would give people who took LSD at that time the hallucination you get with that drug, but without hallucinating.”  In a heavily accented English – aided throughout by subtitles – the Chilean-French director wasn’t saying he encouraged his audience to take the mind-altering acid before seeing his film; his admittedly odd choice of words were trying to explain that he wanted to make a movie that would change perception.  I wanted to make something sacred,” he states.

The film in question was a massive adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune, a work that would eventually be directed in 1984 by David Lynch, but, by all accounts, Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been considerably different.  For one thing, had the film kept to the director’s original script, a massive book the size of a few Yellow Pages bound together, it might have lasted more than fourteen hours.  But that didn’t matter to Jodorowsky.  He would have made it last twenty if that’s what was required.

 

The bulk of the documentary covers the time around 1975 when Jodorowsky optioned the film rights to Dune and attempted to put together a crack team of artists and technicians in order to make his dream project, beginning with the script. 

Instead of a regular screenplay, Jodorowosky developed an enormous book of storyboard sketches, something close to a technical graphic novel, with drawings inked by French artist Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud.  American filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, who recently made the thriller Drive, spent an evening going through the full screenplay with Jodorowsky while the director explained each scene in detail. Refn’s conclusion was enthusiastic: Had Jodorowsky’s vision of Dune been made it would have been magnificent.

As the documentary continues, using comments from observers and animation based on those Moebius storyboard renditions, we learn how Jodorowsky intended to make his film, who he wanted to help him, both in front and behind the camera, and why Hollywood eventually turned it down.

The opening shot, Jodorowsky explains, was intended to be a long, continuous sequence reminiscent of the lengthy, unedited opening to the Orson Welles classic, A Touch of Evil.  With the use of animation, we get a glimpse of the director’s vision as the camera starts with a wide shot of the milky way, then proceeds to move forward among the stars, then the planets while getting closer and closer to its subject until we finally arrive with a close-up of its destination.  It’s an impressive beginning, and it’s a continuous shot we’ve seen in several science fiction films since Jodorowsky’s original concept, but the important thing is, Jodorowsky’s vision was the first.

Orson Welles, we learn, was even wanted to be in the film, but Welles wasn’t initially interested.  He preferred to be spend his days eating and drinking at French restaurants, so as an enticement to be in the project, Jodorowsky promised Welles the following: “I will hire the chef of this restaurant and you will eat as here, everyday.”  Welles considered this, then said, “I’ll do it.”

Mick Jagger also said yes, and so did eccentric artist Salvador Dali, whose only insistence was that he be the highest paid actor in Hollywood with an outrageous, off-the-scale, salary the would have surpassed the budget of the whole project.   The way Jodorowsky and his producer Michel Seydoux got around promising the ridiculous sum was by telling Dali he would be paid as much as $100,000 a minute of on-screen time, but failed to mention in the negotiations that his role would only last about three minutes.  Dali was thrilled.

 

But the problem was selling the idea to Hollywood.  Disney thought the script was good but, like the Concorde, it would never work in America.  Other studios liked the script and the film’s potential, but would ultimately reject it saying, “… But we don’t get your director.”

In the end, despite all the work that went into the preparation, Hollywood pulled the plug, and Jodorowsky’s dream project never took off.  Like most audiences, when a broken Jodorowsky finally went to see the David Lynch version for himself, he was just as confused as the rest of us.  It was awful,” the director states with the biggest of grins.

The documentary, as directed by Frank Pavich, is an undeniably fascinating one that is probably best appreciated by movie-buffs.  On hindsight it seems obvious that Hollywood would turn such an ambitious project down – the studios wanted ninety minutes, Jodorowky needed fourteen hours – but there’s a continuous sense of enthrallment throughout as we witness Jodorowsky’s enthusiasm to fulfill his dream.  Plus, it’s even more fascinating to see the influences of the director’s work in science fiction films that followed, inspired, no doubt, by his storyboard sketches, including Star Wars, Flash Gordon, Prometheus, and Contact, which appeared to use that same, lengthy opening shot throughout the galaxy in the way Jodorowsky imagined his own project.  Jodorowsky’s Dune was beyond a doubt hugely influential.  Quite an achievement for a film that was never made.

 MPAA  Rating:  PG-13     Length:  90 Minutes    Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Unknown Known – Film Review

Among the many fine documentaries made for the larger screen there are two standouts.  One is The Thin Blue Line, the other, The Fog of War: Eleven Lesson from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.  Both made a significant impact and both re-shaped our perspective on their subjects.  Both were also directed by the same man: Errol Morris.

In The Unknown Known, Morris has turned his attention to the political career of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and while there’s a lot that fascinates throughout – how could it not? – the end result doesn’t quite land with the impact you would hope or expect, and that has everything to do with both the director’s approach and his subject.

 

The documentary is based upon the unbelievable amount of internal memos, or snowflakes, that Rumsfeld wrote during his years in politics.  I wonder if in the future, pubic figures will write as many memos as I did,” Rumsfeld ponders directly to the camera.  When director Morris, always off-screen, asks his subject how many memos were written, Rumsfeld states, “There have to be millions.”

Rumsfeld was noted for his weekly press conferences that had the press beguiled for either a quick wit or the fact that his overly complicated word play often left reporters scratching their heads.  The title comes from one such speech where Rumsfeld is quoted as saying, “There are known knowns.  There are known unknowns.  There are unknown unknowns.  But there are also unknown knowns.  That is to say, things that you think you known that it turns out you did not know.  It’s a perfectly chosen title and equally perfect example of Rumfeld’s unique style and the oily manner in which the politician and businessman operates.  He doesn’t appear to present things as they are, he re-shapes his own thoughts and presents them in the way he wants us to see them, and the documentary illustrates plenty examples of where this has happened.

Rumsfeld uses the word imagination a lot, and this is a key to his thinking.  In archival 2001 news footage of his confirmation hearing when nominated for Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld is asked, “What do you worry about when you go to bed at night?”  Intelligence,” he replies. “The danger that we can be surprised because of a failure of what might be happening in the world.  Pearl Harbor was a result of a lack of imagination.  We didn’t know that we didn’t know what they were capable of doing.”

 

When director Morris turns the conversation to 9/11 and the terrorists, he asks, “How do you think they got away with 9/11?  It seems amazing in retrospect.”  Rumsfeld responds with “Everything’s amazing in retrospect!  Pearl Harbor’s amazing in retrospect.  It’s a failure of imagination.” Of course, he hasn’t answered the question; it just seems as though he has.

The film uses photos, TV reports, archival footage, and some well framed new images to underline much of what Rumsfeld is saying.  As with all Erroll Morris documentaries, the subject looks straight into the camera.  He listens to the director’s question and responds as though talking directly to us.  It’s a very effective style that personalizes the whole thing, yet somehow the film never quite snares that certain great reveal you might be hoping for; the moment where Rumsfeld might unintentionally stop and reflect on something that he did or said that would indicate that maybe after all this time as one of the architects of the Iraq War he was wrong and he can now see it. 

But it never happens. After all, this is the man who stated without fear of contradiction that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and added that a trained monkey could find the WMDs.  Sadly, there was no trained monkey in the White House, and no weapons were ever found, yet thousands upon thousands of innocents died as a result of this architect’s determination to send the country to war.  To use Rumsfeld’s own words, “This is a truth.”  The director’s approach of allowing the subject to talk without a forceful challenge brings no reflective admittance.  Rumsfeld is too accomplished in the art of purposely confounding the interviewee for that.

 

If the film does anything, The Unknown Known illustrates Rumsfeld’s well perfected ability to be smoothly evasive on almost any given subject.  He bends and twists meanings to the point where he can contradict himself within the same sentence, and yet sound as though he knows, or think he knows, what he’s talking about.  There are two sides to the coin,” he explains.  One is belief in the inevitability of conflict can become one of its main causes.  That is a truth.  The other side of the coin, which is also true, is, if you wish for peace, prepare for war.  Director Morris then challenges Rumsfeld.  But if both are true, you can use that to justify anything.  Rumsfeld continues.  There’s a similar thing in Rumsfeld’s rules where I say, all generalizations are false, including this one.  He then grins into the camera like the Cheshire Cat and states, “There it is.”  It’s Rumsfeld’s way of declaring, “Ta-daa.” 

I’m reminded of Peter O’Toole in The Ruling Class where the actor managed to make almost everything his nut-case character said sound like Shakespearean eloquence yet what he was actually saying was total bunk.  In his way, Rumsfeld does exactly the same. 

 Rating:  PG-13    Length:  96 Minutes   Overall Rating:  7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – Theatre Review: Valley Youth Theatre, Phoenix

The story of Snow White has been a notable milestone for two important areas of family entertainment.  In 1937 it was the first full-length, animated feature to come from Walt Disney, and back in 1989 it was the first live show ever produced by Valley Youth Theatre.

Since ’89, VYT has revisited the show on four separate occasions, though admittedly the production you’ll see today is considerably different from the one that was first presented when VYT originally came to be.  The show you’ll now see is a handsome, musical production with a fresh sense of vitality and a strong sense of humor where voices soar and the laughs come from unexpected places.

 

The story as written by children’s author Elsa Rael follows the same pattern as the original Grimm’s fairy tale.  The notable differences tend to be with the Woodsman (Connor Baker) who, under orders from the evil queen, is traditionally supposed to use his axe after escorting Snow into the middle of the woods.  Here the method is different.  The Woodsman has a poisonous comb that he’s supposed to run through Snow’s hair – something considerably less violent than the use of an axe – but true to the original, he can’t go through with it and allows Snow to live, as long as she remains hidden away in the woods.

Another difference – and it’s truly effective – is the character of the evil queen. As played with relish by Sarah Moss, the queen may well be just as evil as we’ve always known, but here she’s having a great time being so.  Rather than portraying the conceited ruler as a dark and ominously murderous character with a maniacal laugh, Sarah makes her practically giddy.  She not only loves being the queen, she’s the kind of character that would quite happily have you killed then giggle and squeal with child-like delight as if it’s the funniest thing she’s ever thought of doing.     

Jessie Jo Pauley’s Snow White is the perfect innocent.  With a resigned sigh, she follows all of the queen’s orders and has no clue of her fate when lured into the woods.  Valley audiences may remember Jessie’s strong performance as Baby Louise in Phoenix Theatre’s production of Gypsy, and here as Snow White she is equally effective.  Together, Jessie and Sarah make an outstanding double act; both have excellent singing voices that inject fresh life into their short but surprisingly melodious songs, and both are standout performers who will no doubt go on to bigger things.  VYT has cast well.

 

There’s also strong support from the rest of the cast, particularly Sara Matin as the reflection in the mirror who, when seen in the various frames of the queen’s Pee-Wee Playhouse styled residence, constantly moves her arms in a graceful, slo-mo manner, giving her character the impression of an other worldly elegance as she reveals to the evil ruler who is truly the fairest in the land.

Then there’s the dwarfs, all seven of them, possessing names like Scrubber (Katie Brown), Blubber (Charlie Siegel), Scotty (Justin Vaught with a nice accent) Flubber (Thea Eigo), Pepito (Alexandra Kirby), Mosquito (Andy Wissink), and finally the one called simply Fred (Ian Gray).  As directed and choreographed with a fresh sense of comical invention by first-time VYT director, Molly Lajoie, the dwarves get the biggest laughs by the way they move, talk and dance.  They’re a mixture of old-fashioned Saturday morning cartoon characters and pint-sized Keystone cops.

 

Backed by Dori Brown’s eye-catching set design of the woods which pulls aside to reveal the Dwarf’s hideaway residence, and Karol Cooper’s always attractive costume design, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is consistently entertaining throughout.

The weakest moment is perhaps the rushed conclusion.  William Deihl makes a fine prince with an equally fine singing voice, but the script gives him practically nothing to do.  From the moment he makes his entrance and kisses Snow White out of her slumber, the cast are ready to take its bow.  It’s practically a case of blink and the show’s over.   However, everything leading up to that moment is so much fun with two outstanding leads you’ll want to forgive any reservations you might have during those final few minutes. 

 For times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the VYT website.

Posted in Theatre