Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Review: Under The Skin

Year: 2013 (U.K Theatrical Release 2014)
Director: Johnathan Glazer
Screenplay: Johnathan Glazer, Walter Campbell
Starring: Scarlett Johansson 

Synopsis is here

Under The Skin's IMDB score currently stands at a middling 6.5 on its user ratings. This is understandable. For detractors, the film's lyrical pace will merely frustrate. The nuanced transformation of one of the most famous and attractive woman in the world into a blank alien vessel will be ignored and criticised for its alleged flatness. The films lack of exposition will be viewed has plotless, considering how most screenplays labour themselves with tell-all dialogue.

I understand those criticisms, but I do not agree with them in the slightest. When a film has elusive as this appears on screens, people will always confront those who enjoy it and ask: Why do you like this? Truth is, like a good joke, to deconstruct this film, as I am about to do (poorly), will not give the questioner the satisfying answer they require. After watching Under the Skin, I could only exclaim that it was an "experience". A few days on as I write this, I now consider Under the Skin possibly one of the most incisive science fiction films of the year, if not the last ten. I say this with love and apologies to Gravity (2013), Moon (2008), Children of Men (2005) et all.

Beginning with a grand and opulent 2001 style space sequence and finishing with delicate snowfall, Johnathan Glazer's third feature (9 years after the hauntingly tragic Birth), continues his particular detached observations of human life with Kubrickian precision. The protagonist 'Laura' (Johansson) stalks single men with the removed glare of a terminator. She roams the Scottish Highlands in the kind of white van we tell children to stay away from. Her beauty, however, makes it difficult who the horny males she picks up, who see nothing strange with this particular picture.

Despite the pleasantries that are exchanged, there's no free candy. As the men are seduced, they're are submerged into a thick abyss of liquid. What happens to them is best left to the film to explain, although the Michel Faber novel that the film is loosely based on, explains in clearer detail what happens to these poor souls.

Much has been said about Glazer's use of hidden cameras to film the interactions of Scarlet Johansson with the unwitting Scottish locals. The placement of the cameras often feels similar to the disjointed feel of CCTV cameras not only capturing the action and realistic, awkward conversations, but also slim and strange pockets of uneasy negative space. Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin capture seemingly banal moments of humanity with the aloofness of a playful street photographer. The most typical aspects of human life appear distinct and unnatural, with Glazer's visuals become a primer of sorts. It's the only way I can describe how he makes some of the films most unnerving sequences seem understandable.

This doesn't not mean justified. We may perceive much of Laura's behaviour as ugly, but when the "person" you're watching doesn't run on the same notions and emotions as ourselves, we're suddenly propelled into a new dynamic. A new plateau in which vacant gaze of Laura, unlocks parts of us we keep hidden. Johansson's placid performance provides an abyss for which we can throw our own feelings of humanity into. A cold, gray beach has Laura impassively watch a tragedy play out in front of us while playing her own part towards affecting the situation. Later we hear the development of what happened and we comprehend the situation. Laura's lack of reaction disconcerts, reminding us of our basic empathy.

Glazer melds base, predatory elements with this dispassionate, alien tone to overwhelming results. The film lacks the wry humour that litters Faber's book, but extracts the elements in-between the lines to create something bleaker in its explorations. Glazer adds sequences you couldn't imagine in the novel. Alison Wilmore neatly capsules how the male gaze is subverted within the film. What makes the film so provocative is, the more time Laura spends on our planet, she doesn't just become more "human" but she also encounters the predatory instinct that lies within men when they are not controlled. A small yet pivotal scene has Laura hounded by drunk revelers attacking her van in a way that reminds us of why the feminist movement should not be silenced. The film's final third lands us in survival mode with Laura facing what so many fear before blasting off into the metaphysical.

Under the Skin has faint shades of The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) along with tones of Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) for good measure. Despite this, Glazer maintains his own touch throughout. Laura may be extra-terrestrial, yet she holds the same narrow view of Sexy Beast's (2000) Don Logan or Birth's Anna. Characters that are so unbelievably sure of their aims and goals that anything that displays a different orientation, shatters their comprehension. Here lies the smartness in Glazer's feature, in which, despite how densely alien this being is, she still remains bound by the trappings of the creatures she preys on. Something I'm sure many of us have felt from time to time. The abyss stares back at us.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Review: Chef

Year: 2014
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenplay: Jon Favreau
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sofía Vergara, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, John Leguizamo

Synopsis is here

When I worked at a multiplex, a peculiar thing happened during the release of the first Fast & Furious film. The moment all the track suit decked, boy racing audience left the cinema, a distinct rev of engines could be heard, while the smell of burnt tires filled the air. We were always surprised that we didn't witness any accidents. The Fast and The Furious is not high art, but the effect on its core audience appeared more profound than many of the more obscure, artier features I frequent. Now, after watching Jon Favreau's Chef. I found myself producing this calorie drenched monstrosity at 11pm at night:

Returning to the type of stripped down affair Favreau was known for before blowing up big in Hollywood, Chef presents itself as the little film that could. The film wants to earnestly touch upon the role of the artist, but it's obvious that things have changed for Favreau since Swingers. The subject of food is easily substituted for film as Favreau casts himself as a Chef who finds himself critically and creatively stifled. It's not only clear to see where Favreau is heading with his lead character's arc (filmed off the back of Iron Man 2), but with his cast too. It's a smart touch to cast Dustin Hoffman as a restaurant owner (read Producer) whose stumps up the money for his chef but has no time for the distraction of a diverse menu. Having Hoffman, who came to prominence during the director led New Hollywood era, as a blinkered bean counter of the establishment, hints at a subversive bite. No blood is drawn from the chewing, however, as Favreau can now slap Dustin Hoffman into his movie.

Chef does spend some of its time balancing precariously between a film about an artist being an artist and not wanting to be too damning about its real subject. While its notes on criticism and how it affects a person's work and family life are much more mature than Lady in the Water (2006), it doesn't beat the deft commentary delivered by Pixar's Ratatouille (2007). This doesn't mean that Chef isn't being honest with itself, despite needlessly shoving Robert Downley Jr and Scarlet Johansson into roles due to being work colleagues with the director.

The fact is, to expect Favreau to merely distill every aspect of his filmmaking to a late 90's indie, is naïve. Scarlet Johansson and Sofía Vergara are somewhat smugly cast as love interests for the now more portly Favreau (still a genuinely likable screen presence), but this was the slubby actor who had himself swing dancing with Heather Graham in a script he had written. The film's outward narrative tension isn't particularly strong, yet like Swingers (1996), a film about a man looking inside himself once more to get back on the horse, Chef works because the characters have such an affectionate and easy going sense of charm, that they're hard not to like. It's interesting to see that in terms of structure, humour and general sensibility, when the budget drops, Favreau hasn't really changed, despite some thematic flaws. What he delivers is a light and enjoyable comedy with wholesome characters and a cast that's game. Yes, it's a thinly veiled chance to show off a catchy soundtrack and gorgeous street food (Favreau refitted his kitchen after filming), but Chef at its heart of hearts is a sincere attempt to leave you feeling fuzzy. Chef doesn't have the barbs to put it on the level with the likes of The Player (1992), but there was enough in there to make me bring out the pots and pans and indulge in a little passion. 


Sunday, 22 June 2014

Review: The Past

Year: 2013 (U.K Release 2014)
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Screenplay: Asghar Farhadi
Starring: Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa

Synopsis is here:

To say I have a problem with mainstream cinema’s addiction to broad moral arrangements would be incorrect. As budgets grow higher and international audiences become even more important to Hollywood, it’s understandable to see films appear to be more uncomplicated in their principles. I’ve mentioned on this blog, at least in one entry, how much I enjoyed some Blockbusters more simple outlooks towards its subjects.

However a film fan cannot live on It’s when films slip into more difficult territory, that I find myself more engaged. I love an entertaining diversion, but they just don’t stain the memory as much as The Past. Through such an alarmingly simple set-up, an ex coming back sign his divorce papers, this absorbing drama has a vivid poignancy which lesser films can only ever hope for. Like Asghar Farhadi’s previous film; A Separation,  The Past boasts wonderful uses of form, which only enhance the inner conflicts of the characters we observe.

You sense the film's intent from its opening moments. When we first meet Ahmad (Mosaffa), he is leaving the Airport to meet his pick up and soon to be ex wife Marie (Bejo). They notice each other but are separated by the glass window of the airport. They try to talk to each other yet they cannot hear what the other is saying. It’s a small moment that foreshadows one of The Past's main themes, the difficulty of communication. As the film continues, we observe how each character's willingness/unwillingness to communicate draws divisions between each other. As in A Separation, the games of the adults cause considerable wedges between the children, while their impulsive behaviors, keep the tensions of the elders on a knife edge.

The Past works because it’s human characters are so beautifully drawn. Bejo’s Marie is not a two dimensional shrew, but a conflicted woman whose lack of brevity, forces  the man in her life into near impossible positions. Ahmad caring qualities shine with both Marie’s and Samir’s children, yet it’s clear that his desire for a clean resolution to the situation obscures the reality. Samir (A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim) is not a dim cypher that one could easily see an American film portray him as, but a deeply torn young struck by both his past and present loves. These people are drenched in differing moral shades. Bad things happen, yet not for the simple reasoning that these people are evil, but desperate, drained and damaged.

Farhadi wraps these characters up within a Paris that feels miles away from the one we recognize in other movies.  There are no landmarks to speak of and why should there be? This is a Paris which has been "lived in". That is the romantic, idealistic view of the city. Whatever sights there could have been, are long forgotten now. All that exists now for these characters, is how they wish to deal with their past to cope with their present, yet they are constantly reminded. At one point Ahmad notices that the house he once lived in with Marie is being repainted. It’s not just the walls being painted over, but memories too.

This is Farhadi’s first film outside of Iran, but his ability to deliver rich drama has not been lost in translation. Every performance is weighted, every moment is measured and every emotion is balanced. For me the film works not just because of its densely packed compositions, but because when we add up all I see from these people and how this small segment of the relationship plays out, the film is still compelling enough to make me think twice and reconsider each person's position. Something these characters must do in every moment we are with them.

Review: The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears

Year: 2013 (UK Release 2014)
Director: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani
Screenplay: Hélène Cattet Bruno Forzani
Starring: Klaus Tange, Ursula Bedena, Joe Koener

Synopsis is bizarre

Macabre directors; Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, who delivered sensual yet disconcerting Amer have returned with their second, giallo tinged feature length thriller. The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears reverses some of the elements of their 2009 debut, but retains the themes the duo are infatuated with, albeit with lesser results.  

With a narrative as convoluted as the film’s title, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears follows Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange); a disorientated fellow who tries to uncover the bizarre disappearance of his wife within his Brussels apartment building. Falling deeper down the rabbit hole, his findings only become more cryptic. Soon after, Dan begins to sense the feeling that he’s being watched, as do most people in a film like this one.

This deconstruction of the infamous Italian pulp genre, like Amer, displays two directors who are completely in sync with their vision in terms of craft. It’s difficult to fault the beautiful “ugliness” of the visuals (cinematographer Manuel Dacosse) or the pinpoint accuracy of the film's editing (Editor Bernard Beets’ makes you believe you saw more than you did), but with all the film’s fancy pants technique is lost upon the writer/director duo’s indulgent love for the opaque.

Countless sequences are repeated, narrative tangents lead to very little and the films violent and sexual transgressions never fully connect. Far too often the film feels unfocused in what it wants to say and what it is saying has been explored by other directors with less pretension. When talking in terms of the form, the film's placement in the giallo sub-genre raises an eyebrow. The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears looks superb, and often oozes with a tension that could be hard to gain from some of the more dated films it’s influenced from. A moment involving hands roaming inside a body, is troubling in a way only some horror films can be.

However, in a wider argument in terms of theme, the film is repackaging old ideas of male sexuality and voyeurism into glossy new wrapping paper and doing very little to see if you’re interested in the gift. While Amer’s focus on female sexuality felt provocative, The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears does very little to engage other than producing a few moments of distinctive moments of creepiness. It did, however, remind me that I really should pick up the remastered Peeping Tom (1960) Blu-Ray. So there’s that.

Review: Oculus

Year: 2014
Director: Mike Flanagan
Screenplay: Jeff Howard
Starring: Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites, Katee Sackhoff, Rory Cocharne

Synopsis is here:

It is currently world cup season and I have spent much of the last week in a colorful football haze, doing my best to catch as many of the games as I can. A good friend of mine (who despises sports) invited me out to the cinema to watch Oculus as he didn’t really have another person interested in horror movies to go with. Personally, I feel there was an unconscious, ulterior motive: to get me out the house and back on the films so I could possibly fill my social network statues with something other than awful memes of Spain’s demise.

My visit to watch Oculus coincided with the Holland vs Australia game and, of course, in typical fashion, it featured one of the best goals of the tournament so far. That said, movies are my overall passion and while I wished I saw the game in its entirety, I’ll happily miss football for a horror film which delivers the goods. Mike Flanagan’s Oculus was quick to inform me that I made the right choice missing the game.

James Wan and Leigh Warrell may be gaining the plaudits when it comes to the populist aspect of the genre, but Flanagan’s second feature (his first was the Kickstarter sponsored Absentia) really finds a way to get under the fingernails. Oculus doesn’t resort to the cheap and mechanical scares that littered the likes of immensely popular The Conjuring (2013). Instead, it finds a way to take the known tropes of the genre, invigorate them with some slight tweaks, strong knowledge of a decent setup and genuinely affecting characters. Oculus clearly riffs on the likes of The Shining (1980), The Amityville Horror (1979 & 2005) and a truckload of psychological/possession films before it, yet the film’s direction and performances hold a conviction that I sometimes find to be sorely lacking from this particular sub-genre of horror.

This is a film which has a very measured, gradual building of tension, with a screenplay keeps its characters and their emotions in the forefront. More importantly, these main characters feel strong. Karen Gillan’s Kaylee feels less like a cutout from the horror template of female horror characters and is a frank young woman who actually has a game plan for dealing with the evil at hand. Brenton Thwaites’ Tim may feel less defined at times, but the actor still manages to give the character a confused energy that heightens the uncomfortable feeling that hangs in the film’s air. Katee Sackhoff impresses with a sometimes savagely physical performance, meanwhile Rory Cocharne shows that the years haven’t been kind to him since Empire Records with an intense and brooding performance.  
Flanagan displays his confidence with a third act that had me agreeing with my friend's statement that we landed in “Videodrome territory”. Not only does Flanagan hold a strong grasp of atmosphere (the lingering camera gains a sense of dread throughout), but as the film hurtles towards its climax, he manages to maintain the complexity of the film's flashback narrative. The final third becomes devilishly playful in teasing us with the character’s sense of their past, their present and how both converge. We only become confused when the film wants us be, and the mental geography that takes place, never leaves the viewer behind.

These reasons are why I found Oculus such an interesting entry into the horror genre. Oculus doesn’t turn the old archetypes on its head. Instead, it merely reminds us about the people who have to do their best to survive the things that go bump in the night. Something I wish I felt when watching The Conjuring. Hauntings have always been about the people being scared. When we see their reactions, we feel it too.