Posts Tagged ‘Under the Skin’

Events have conspired to keep me away from this blog over the last week or so, but after a year of blogging about film I feel it would be remiss of me – with just a few hours to go – not to make a few comments about nominees for this year’s Academy Awards. Needless to say, there are films that I would have liked to see shortlisted for Best Picture but which weren’t. Under the Skin would be the film I’d have given an Oscar to; this, Foxcatcher, and Nightcrawler were, in my view, all vastly superior to American Sniper and The Imitation Game. However, the Academy Awards, like the recent BAFTAs, seem to exhibition a certain degree of conservatism.

The main points of controversy have been the lack of recognition for black performers and film-makers, as well as the degree of dramatic license taken in many of the films depicting historical events. I have seen, though not reviewed, all of the films nominated for Best Picture and in some cases my view of a picture has changed since I first saw it. So, without further ado, here are my brief thoughts on the nominations.

American Sniper  I didn’t for one minute think that this was a pro-war film, but in retrospect I agree with many of the film’s detractors that it was problematical to view all events from the perspective of Chris Kyle. In particular, Kyle appears to swallow the falsity that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, but director Clint Eastwood does nothing to disabuse the audience of this myth. We also know from Kyle’s own book that the opening scene of the movie is inaccurate, albeit in a way that invites the audience to share his view of Iraqis as “savages”: the woman we see carrying the grenade did not, in reality, pass the weapon to a child to carry. Nonetheless, to my eyes – if not to some other viewers – American Sniper clearly showed the American invasion of Iraq to be a futile venture. But does this film deserve its Best Picture nomination? Not in my view. By a long way, this is not even Eastwood’s best film.

Birdman (or the unexpected virtue of ignorance)Interweaving fantasy and reality, this is one of the more obviously dazzling nominees, with several terrific performances, a stirring soundtrack, and most of the film apparently shot in a single take. Michael Keaton excels in his role as Riggan Thomson, an actor who once starred as a movie superhero called Birdman, and who is now attempting to put on a Broadway theatrical production. There is obviously a degree of self-referentiality here, in that Keaton of course played Batman in two movies. Self-referentiality also appears when Riggan engages in fisticuffs with the volatile Mike, played by Ed Norton – who of course starred in Fight Club. Funny and inventive, Birdman is like Fellini’s remade by Terry Gilliam. I rather felt that the female characters played second fiddle to the men, but perhaps that simply reflects the way that Hollywood actually is.

Boyhood Richard Linklater is one of the most creative directors in the business, with films like the Before… trillogy, A Scanner Darkly, Waking Life, and School of Rock to his name. Filmed over a 12 year period, Boyhood is undoubtedly one of the most adventurous projects undertaken by any movie director. Some might question whether the slender storyline merits an Oscar, but on the other hand it is the very depiction of the development of ordinary lives that fascinates the viewer. As the winner of the Best Picture at the BAFTAs, this may have some momentum behind it.

The Grand Budapest Hotel  Wes Anderson’s latest has all his trademark visual style, as well as a range of weird and wonderful characters played by many of the most notable actors in the business. Ralph Fiennes gives a brilliant comic turn as Monsieur Gustave H., the concierge for the hotel of the title as well as a self-confessed lothario towards the female visitors. In my view Fiennes should have been nominated for Best Actor. However, like most of Anderson’s films this one amused me but failed to be as funny as I thought it would be.

The Imitation Game  I was initially very enthusiastic about this film. It is funny, thrilling, and despite its intellectual subject matter moves along at quite a pace. I wasn’t sure at the time just how historically authentic this was, but assumed that a few liberties had been taken in order to enhance the drama. That’s fine – up to a point. However, from what I have subsequently learned I feel that this is a film that has stepped over a line. Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific as Alan Turing, but the simple fact is that Turing was not the socially awkward Aspergers-like character shown in the film. He had a sense of humour and worked well with his colleagues. Perhaps even more importantly, among the film’s fictitious constructions is the suggestion that Turing failed to disclose to the authorities that one of his colleagues was a Soviet spy (for fear that his homosexuality would be revealed). In effect, this depicts Turing engaged in an act that would have been considered treasonous, had it ever actually happened. On a more positive note, Keira Knightley is fantastic as Joan Clarke.

Selma  In many ways this is a brilliant and moving film. It follows Martin Luther King Jr, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act and his award of the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the passing of the Civil Rights Act, which gave black Americans the right to vote, many southern states contrived various illegal devices to prevent black people voting. King attempts, unsuccessfully, to persuade President Lyndon B. Johnson to tackle the problem of the southern states, but the President is resistant, wishing to focus on the wider problem of poverty. King travels to the town of Selma, where he organises a series of increasingly large demonstrations. The violent response to these is widely televised, leading the President to finally take action. It is surely a major oversight of the Academy that David Oyelowo was not nominated for his excellent portrayal of King. However, this film also is not beyond criticism. It seems to have been generally accepted that President Johnson was actually far more sympathetic to King’s cause than is shown here. It is interesting to note that three significant Americans (King, Johnson, and Governor Wallace) are all played by British actors (respectively: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, and Tim Roth).

The Theory of Everything  The story of Stephen and Jane Hawking, this could perhaps be a safe choice for the Academy’s voters. The cinematography is beautiful, the story moving, and the characters sympathetic. Jane and Stephen Hawking are said to have been very pleased with the film. Nonetheless, the film’s overarching romanticism surely airbrushes events that must have been far more difficult than is depicted here. Eddie Redmayne is brilliant as Stephen, as is Felicity Jones as Jane, and both are fully deserving of their Best Actor nominations.

Whiplash  In terms of pure entertainment, this is hard to beat. It’s the story of an aspiring jazz drummer who comes up against a teacher whose drive to create a new “great” tips over into outright bullying. As a story, it doesn’t have the same significance as something like Selma or The Theory of Everything, but the narrative construction is as tight as one of its own drumskins, and the final scene is more perfect than any of the other nominations.

My verdict:  Of the films nominated, I would give the Best Picture award to Boyhood, a film that is captivating and unique and deserves to be formally recognised as such. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Academy goes for one of the more obvious crowd-pleasers.

For Best Director, I would have to pick Richard Linklater for the above-mentioned Boyhood. To put together such an extraordinary film over a 12 year period, whilst also making some other great movies, is a monumental achievement.

I was sorry that Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t get nominated for Best Actor (male), for his role in Nightcrawler. I thought he was easily more deserving than Bradley Cooper (good though he might have been). This is a pretty tough category to choose from this year, though, with some stunning performances delivered. I rather suspect that Michael Keaton or Eddie Redmayne will pick up the award, but if it were left to me I would choose Steve Carell for his portrayal of troubled millionaire John du Pont in Foxcatcher. Some have said that this is more of a Supporting Role, but for me Carell absolutely dominates the picture.

As I haven’t seen all the films in the remaining acting categories I shall refrain from commenting on those. Possibly the most egregious omission from the Oscars, in my opinion, is Mica Levi’s soundtrack for Under The Skin. I thought this was a country mile ahead of anything else in the year just gone.

For Best Original Screenplay I would choose Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, and for the Best Adapted Screenplay I would choose Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash.

I have seen just two of the films nominated for Best Documentary, but frankly – in terms of sheer contemporary importance – I find it hard to imagine how there could be a more deserving winner that Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour. This documentary about whistleblower Edward Snowden reveals just how badly we have been lied to by our governments about the scale of intrusive surveillance upon ordinary people. And more than anything, it shows just how brave Ed Snowden is.

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As my first year in film review blogging draws to a close, it’s time for me to  list my Top Ten of the year. I’ve restricted myself to films that went on general release in the UK in 2014, which means I can’t list one of my favourite films – Nothing Bad Can Happen (see April 5th review), directed by Katrin Gebbe and shown as part of the Bird’s Eye Film Festival. As a non-professional blogger I also can’t claim to have seen all the good (or bad) films released this year. Some of the films that have popped up in lists such as the Sight & Sound Top 20 or the Guardian Top Ten, but which I haven’t seen, are The Lego Movie, Ida, and Leviathan.

But with no further ado and in reverse order, here are my ten favourites of the year.

10. The Wind Rises.

9. Inside Llewyn Davis.

8. Pride.

7. 12 Years a Slave.

6. Kajaki.

5. Citizenfour.

4. Tom at the Farm.

3. Nightcrawler.

2. Boyhood.

1. Under the Skin.


10. The Wind Rises.

The Studio Ghibli animation genius, Hayao Miyazaki, has said this will be his last film. But I will not be alone in hoping that he has a change of heart. In my review (May 24th) I said that this was “one of my favourite films of the year so far and one of the greatest animated movies I have ever seen”. Pursuing a more adult theme than most of Studio Ghibli’s output, The Wind Rises tells a fictionalised version of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the airplane designer who opposed Japan’s involvement in World War 2 but was also responsible for two of that nation’s greatest fighter planes used in the conflict. Miyazaki masterfully conveys how a child’s wonder at the marvels and mystery of flight never leaves Horikoshi as an adult, “although ultimately it is a very melancholy tale too”.

9. Inside Llewyn Davis.

Like The Wind Rises, Inside Llewyn Davis also has a rather melancholic feel, albeit balanced by the dry wit and colourful characters typical of Cohen brothers’ scripts. It tells the tale of a struggling sixties folk musician giving one last attempt at breaking into the big time. Some found the character of Llewyn Davis too unsympathetic to identify with, but I disagree. I found his increasing resentment all too easy to understand. A merchant seaman by trade, Davis finds himself watching inferior musicians dressed in chunky sweaters, singing songs about life at sea, and receiving warm applause from their audiences. The ending is rather splendid.

8. Pride.

The closure of industries during the Thatcher era of government, and especially the miners’ strike of 1985-6, has formed the backdrop for several British feelgood movies, including Billy Elliott and The Full Monty. In Pride, however, the politics of the time is much more to the fore. This is essentially a culture-clash story in which two very different beleaguered groups find they have a common cause. Based on real events, when the London-based group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners make contact with a South Wales colliery, they find that acceptance doesn’t happen straight away. Eventually, though, strong bonds are formed, culminating in a group of miners leading the Gay Pride march in London. Pride features one of the year’s best supporting performances, from Bill Nighy as a closeted former miner who quietly comes out.

7. 12 Years a Slave.

Deservedly picking up the 2014 Best Picture Oscar, 12 Years a Slave is based on Solomon Northup’s harrowing account of his own abduction into slavery. It’s power lies not only in the terrible sense of injustice that is conveyed, but in the graphic depictions of cruelty that have a visceral impact on the viewer. Lupita Nyong’o collected the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, but powerful performances are also given by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup) and Michael Fassbender (as the brutal slaveowner, Edwin Epps).

6. Kajaki.

Despite the fact that British forces have been engaged in conflict somewhere every year for the past 100 years, it is hard to recall any British war films in recent times. As it happens, Yann Demange’s ’71, released in October, was a very exciting story set in Northern Ireland’s “troubles” in the early seventies. But the film that makes this list is surely one of the best British war films ever made. Kajaki is a crowdfunded movie, written by Tom Williams and directed by Paul Katis. It is the true story of a group of elite soldiers (3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment) who get caught in a Soviet-era minefield whilst serving in Afghanistan. Realism is the watchword here, from the boredom of guarding the dam (which may have motivated what was actually an unauthorised mission to engage a Taliban roadblock) to the depiction of bloody wounds and the earthy squaddie humour. Rather unflattering depictions of equipment failure and of the RAF sending the wrong type of helicopter for the rescue mission may have been the reason for the Ministry of Defence withdrawing their support. Political questions are deliberately not overtly addressed in Kajaki, but viewers might nonetheless be prompted to wonder whether we should really have been in Afghanistan. Not for the squeamish.

5. Citizenfour.

In January 2013 the journalist and film-maker Laura Poitras was contacted via encrypted email by someone using the name “Citizen Four”. This was the codename adopted by the whistleblower, Ed Snowden. Poitras makes documentaries around political themes and, at the time of Snowden’s approach, was making a film about surveillance in the wake of 9/11 (actually the third part of a trilogy, the first two being My Country My Country and The Oath). She went to visit Snowden during the period when he was holed up in a hotel bedroom in Hong Kong, and filmed Snowden’s conversations with the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill. These conversations, during which Snowden reveals the scale of illegal surveillance undertaken by the National Security Agency and others, form the basis of Citizenfour, but are intercut with various courtroom scenes and interviews with other key figures, such as whistleblower William Binney and computer security expert Jacob Applebaum.

The film is a riveting piece of history. More than anything, the thing that sticks with me from Citizenfour is the bravery of Ed Snowden, who was fully aware of the trouble that he was bringing upon himself.

4. Tom at the Farm.

At age 25, Tom at the Farm (Tom à la Ferme) was the fifth feature film to be directed by French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan. It is a Hitchcockian psychodrama about a young man, Tom (played by Xavier Dolan), who travels to the rural home of his dead gay lover’s family, in preparation for the funeral. The mother turns out to be unaware of her deceased son’s sexual orientation, and Tom is bullied into silence by psychotic Francis, the brother of the dead man. The two men then become involved in a dark and complicated fashion. With its strong imagery, complex characters and bold storyline, this is a film that has really stuck in my mind.

3. Nightcrawler.

There is a long Hollywood tradition of depicting the dark side of the American Dream in its movies. The protagonist grafts hard to work his way up the ladder, but also transgresses the law by taking dodgy shortcuts (e.g. Nightmare Alley, Wall Street, The Wolf of Wall Street). Typically this figure will eventually be brought low and there may or may not be some element of remorse and redemption. Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler is possibly the most uncompromising film in this tradition. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom progresses from filming car crashes on his camcorder to rearranging crimes scenes in such a way that they will obtain a higher price from the news networks he is selling to. Bloom is not brought low. There is no remorse or redemption. On the contrary, Bloom corrupts those that he comes in to contact with. Human transactions become purely economic transactions. This is Ayn Rand’s philosophy writ large and all the more terrifying for it. Gyllenhaal is one of the best actors in Hollywood right now, and his performance in Nightcrawler ought to propel him towards an Oscar nomination.

2. Boyhood.

The top of many people’s end-of-year lists, Richard Linklater’s growing-up drama Boyhood is – as the trailer states – unique in the history of cinema. The film was made over a 12 year period and traces the childhood of Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) over this space of time, so we see him genuinely age twelve years (as well as his movie parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette). Mason Jr’s parents are separated, and much of the drama comes from growing up with a mom who keeps meeting unsuitable men. It is the ordinariness of the events that matter here which, because they are covered in such detail, enable viewers to identify with and be moved by them. In retrospect, my review (June 16th) was a little ungenerous in its rating: this is ten out of ten.

1. Under the Skin.

In compiling this Top Ten I changed my mind about the rankings on several occasions, and it is quite likely that I will change my mind again once this is posted. The one film I’ve had no trouble placing, though, is Jonathan Glazer’s phenomenal Under The Skin. This is not just my film of the year, but also of this century so far. Light on dialogue and heavy on incredible imagery, it is the story of an alien (Scarlett Johansson), constructed in the guise of a female human, who is sent by mysterious handlers (men on motorbikes) to find and kill people who won’t be missed, presumably as luxury food for beings on another planet. However, certain events lead the alien to develop empathic feelings for the people she is preying on. In one of the most extraordinary scenes in any film, the alien, whilst driving around nighttime Glasgow in search of victims, engages a severely disfigured man in conversation. The encounter is variously funny, uncomfortable, and touching. Eventually, the alien gives her handlers the slip and disappears into the Scottish countryside, where she faces new challenges.

Comparisons with Kubrick are entirely justified and the title is open to various interpretations. Johansson’s performance is terrific, switching between warm seductress and dead-eyed killer, and in my opinion should make her an Oscar contender. The scenes of her driving a van around Glasgow and talking to Scottish men, some of who were genuine passersby, are terrific and not easily forgotten.

As I noted in my original review of Under the Skin, this is a movie that doesn’t provide the viewer with explanations. It provides you with the images and then demands that you piece together the story yourself. Since that first review I have read an interview with director Jonathan Glazer in Sight and Sound magazine, and earlier tonight I saw the film a second time. For the past few days I have constantly had scenes from the film running through my mind, to the point that I just had to go back for another viewing. This posting isn’t so much a second review, but a slightly haphazard collection of thoughts that have occurred to me since my first viewing and, particularly, since tonight’s viewing.

One thing to note is that the film opens with a completely black screen and ends with a completely white one, a nice twist on the screenwriting rule-of-thumb that the mood at the end should be the opposite of the mood at the start. On the black screen that we begin with, a small white dot appears, getting larger (or closer), and eventually it becomes apparent that we are seeing the creation of the alien’s eye*. In the final scene we see the burnt black corpse of the alien, and then the camera tilts upwards towards the falling snow, until the screen is entirely filled with white.

Going back to the opening images again, we hear – slightly fuzzily – words being repeated. These, of course, are the alien learning the language “she” will be speaking on earth. But the background to this is rather interesting. From Glazer’s Sight and Sound interview I learned that these rehearsals were not a planned part of the film. The recordings were actually of Scarlett Johansson working on her English accent. Needless to say, this Hollywood superstar is an alien herself when placed in the streets of Glasgow so it seemed quite natural to incorporate these word rehearsals as part of the movie itself.

Previously, I suggested that the alien is storing her human victims as a food source. I have since learned that Michael Faber’s original novel was making quite a strong statement about factory farming. I don’t know how much more detail the book goes into this business of farming, but it did occur to me that the alien is having to expend an awful lot of energy to obtain her human victims. When animals obtain food, there is always a tradeoff to be made by how far an animal must travel, how much food can be carried, and the energy obtained. When I watched the alien trying to drag a body along a beach, it did strike me that this was quite a cost-intensive way of obtaining food. Even the idea of driving around in a van, seeking men who are alone, and then taking them back to a house, seemed like quite a big effort. However, that was a level of reality that I could quite easily push to the back of my mind, as the film has much more interesting things to focus on.

Incidentally, that scene on the beach was really quite extraordinary. The alien is talking to a swimmer clad in a wetsuit, when he spots someone in trouble and goes to assist. A woman is swimming out into rough sea to rescue her dog, who is being carried away from the beach. In turn, the man who is with her has spotted that she is also going to need help, and he starts swimming out to her. I have no idea how this scene was filmed, but it really did look frighteningly dangerous. I was quite concerned for the actors involved! And all the time, the alien watches completely impassively.

In the second half of the film the alien becomes vulnerable. I wasn’t quite sure exactly what brought about this change. The alien stops her van whilst on a country road. Why? Did she run out of petrol? Was there a breakdown? I wondered also whether she might have been disoriented by the fog that had descended; she certainly appeared confused once she actually began walking out in the fog.

The last part of the film seems to be touching on the theme of women’s fears, and particularly the idea that the world can be an alien place for them. A kindly Scottish man offers his assistance and the two of them end up spending time together, and ultimately going to bed together. In this scene, the impassive alien, who has mostly seemed unconcerned with human emotions, actually seems to respond to the man’s attentions. However, in the final scenes of the film the alien is hunted in a forest by a would-be rapist lorry-driver. His attempted rape is pretty ghastly to watch. Even here, though, there is one moment that reminds us that our vulnerable young woman is in fact an alien being. Whilst she is lying on the ground and he is attempting to force himself upon her, we see her eyes turn to the sky. We realise that she is captivated by the falling snowflakes, a phenomenon that she has presumably never experienced before. When the lorry driver realises that this woman is not actually human, he pours petrol over her and sets her alight. The final shot of the alien in flames reminded me of that other classic that ends with a burning in a remote part of Scotland – The Wicker Man (I’m not suggesting this was a deliberate parallel, but who knows?).

In my view, this is a film that deserves recognition at awards ceremonies. Scarlett Johansson’s performance is outstanding. In the first half she alternates between a smiling flirtatiousness that few men could resist, and an impassively blank face that gives absolutely nothing away. Later, in the lovemaking scene her behaviour indicates something that we would recognise as tenderness if she were human. Finally, her fear and bewilderment when she is trying to escape her attacker are quite palpable.

Glazer himself needs to be considered at awards time for the amazing originality of his directorial vision. Daniel Landin’s cinematography is breathtaking at times, and Mica Levi’s musical score perfectly complements the visuals and the action. Both are also deserving of awards nominations.

* In my original review I referred to the alien as “Laura”, as this is what she is called on the iMDB cast entry. However, I don’t recall that we ever hear her name in the film, so maybe this is just how she appeared in the script.

Image

I recently watched an interview with the Italian director Dario Argento, in which he commented on the visual style of movies, saying that some films are prose and others are poetry. Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi horror Under the Skin, I would have to say, falls into the latter camp. This is not a film for the kind of moviegoer who likes everything to be explained and for all loose ends to be tied up. It is, however, a film that contains some quite extraordinary images that resonate in the mind.

Scarlett Johansson gives a dazzling performance as “Laura”, an alien creature who travels around Glasgow luring single men back to a house, where she then traps them in some sort of alien dimension (possibly a food store, as one image suggests). This provides for a series of striking scenes in which we see Laura and her latest victim in a large shiny black space. As Laura divests herself of her clothes and walks backwards, each man walks towards her, entranced, but gradually sinking beneath the black surface whilst Laura remains walking atop it.

Throughout the film we see many events as though through Laura’s eyes. As she drives along the streets of Glasgow in a white van, the city and its inhabitants appear almost as though they are another world to us. Several men are persuaded to climb into Laura’s van as a prelude to their being trapped in her alien dimension. Apparently these men were genuinely unwitting inhabitants of Glasgow, rather than actors, and a series of hidden cameras in the van enabled them and Johannson to be filmed from a variety of angles. When she interacts with these men, Laura smiles and is friendly, but in all other circumstances she is impassive and watchful, like the predator she is.

Various aspects of Under the Skin bring to mind some of the classic science fiction movies, notably 2001 – A Space Odyssey and The Man Who Fell to Earth. The latter movie contains an iconic scene of David Bowie’s alien viewing an entire bank of television sets. By contrast, Under the Skin gives us the sight of Laura sitting on a sofa in a Scottish living room, eating baked beans on toast, whilst watching Tommy Cooper’s spoon-jar routine on a single television. As this might suggest, there are a number of humorous moments, despite the dark and unsettling nature of much of the film. However, whereas The Man Who Fell to Earth used the device of a science fiction alien to say something about the nature of American consumer/corporate society, Under the Skin gives us a glimpse of individual lives in modern Scotland (presumably any city could have been used as the setting, but there is certainly something striking about the contrast between Johannson’s refined English accent and the broad Glaswegian of those she encounters). In particular, there is an emphasis on socially isolated men.

In the second half, as is the case in so many horror films the action moves to the countryside. There is a crisis of sorts and the predator becomes prey. Laura is vulnerable, and at one point she briefly shows what appears to be some human tenderness. This allows us to feel empathy for her, despite everything that has happened previously. One of the things that is never quite explained is the role of a leather-clad motorcyclist, apparently some kind of minder, and who rounds up one of her victims who has managed to escape. But as noted earlier, it is these open questions that help make Under the Skin so thought-provoking, just as is the case with many David Lynch movies.

Cinematographer Daniel Landin must be praised for some exquisitely shot scenes, including the interior alien dimension and some beautifully raw scenes of the Scottish coast and highlands. The unsettling mood elicited by the story and images is also enhanced by a fine musical score from Micachu.

This is a film unlike anything you will have seen in a long time.

Rating: 10/10.

Previewed at the BFI on 13th March.

This review was originally posted on 13th March, and was updated at 19:57 hours on 14th March.