Monday, September 29, 2014

Under the Skin review

"Under the Skin" takes its time. Its pacing is deliberate. It's an unforgiving film. If you watched the trailers, you should have an idea of what you're in for, but really, there's really no other movie like this. The best way to describe it is "Eraserhead meets 2001." So, if you like both those movies, you may be able to stomach "Under the Skin," but for many others, it won't be their cup of tea.

This is a movie that doesn't belabor its point. It doesn't spell everything out for you. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien that seduces strange, lonely men and, quite literally, leads them into oblivion. That's the only way I can describe what happens to them. That doesn't really spoil anything for you, so don't worry.

As I describe the film, it must be noted that none of that is really spelled out or explained. There really isn't a wholly logical, reasonable explanation for what she's doing. The only thing we have is what we see. This is a strictly visual movie. There's dialogue, sure, but most of the dialogue (if not all) is inconsequential to what's happening from a visual standpoint. So, if you can follow a movie visually, you should be able to get along with the film just fine... unfortunately, that doesn't really describe the majority of the general audience.

Even some refine cineastes may balk at this movie because so many people have forgotten what movies were really supposed to do, originally. A movie is really only supposed to tell its story visually. When we get close-ups of Scarlett's eyes and face. When we see her naked body lit up and surrounding by darkness, these visuals mean something. There's a man who drives a motorcycle who apparently runs the operation Scarlett Johansson's character is involved in, but they never talk. I can only infer that she follows his orders based on their behavior. For me, this is all very fascinating. I love a movie, and a director, that trusts its audiences implicitly and very clearly constructs his film from a visual standpoint. The most recent example of this is last year's "Upstream Color" by Shane Carruth.

"Upstream Color" was one of last year's great films. "Under the Skin" is one of the best films of this year. Yet the former has a 6.8 on IMDB and the latter has a 6.3. Very underwhelming ratings. And I consider IMDB's ratings to speak for the general moviegoing public. Maybe IMDB leans more towards fanboys and teenagers, but whoever saw Under the Skin collectively gave it a 6.3 rating. Now I don't expect everyone to like the film as much as I do, but it's telling to me that so many people just have no patience for a movie like this. Of the 35,000 votes on IMDB, over 3,000 viewers gave the movie a 1. I normally don't talk about or obsess over these details, but there's a reason why I'm doing it this time

Because I know the reason why most people (ok, most males) saw this movie. It's because Scarlett Johansson gets naked in it. That's it. I can guarantee you that's the sole reason. Now I have nothing against those who enjoy that kind of titillation, but it's actually fascinating in this case because "Under the Skin," to me, is a study on that type of titillation.

"Under the Skin" asks why. Why do men find Scarlett Johansson so attractive? Why is that so many of these lonely Scottish men are so willing to get into the van of a stranger? Why is it that they are so hooked on her face and her body and can't look away until they're submerged in a liquid they can't remove themselves from? Again, "Under the Skin" is not an outwardly feminist movie or anything like that, this is really just my interpretation. But for me, the context clues are most definitely there.

This film, in many ways, feels like a condemnation of the way men treat women. The males who populate this movie are horny, violent, desperate, lonely, angry. There's only one man who treats Scarlett's character fairly and he's one of the only ones who resists an ill-fated demise. It may seem cruel or unfair or mean to treat men this way, if it weren't so goddamn accurate and true. Again, most men saw this movie because they knew Scarlett Johansson would get naked. They are the strange, lonely men who get in the car! But as a result of watching this movie, they don't quite get what they want. Sure, she's naked a few times in the movie, but the audience has to wade through long takes with close-ups on Johansson's face. There are no sex scenes. There's lots of build up but no pay off. So, of course, the movie is repellent to them. And this is exemplified perfectly by a scene at the very end of the movie where the alien nearly gets raped by a man in the forest. A man who originally was helpful to her. But because she didn't give him what he wanted, the man reacted violently and tried to take what he wanted from her. When she didn't have the tools necessary for him to take what he wanted, he then... well, you'll have to see for yourself.

"Under the Skin" is a very bleak, yet very accurate look at today's society. It sheds men in a very unflattering light and you know what? We deserve it. Look at the way we treat beautiful young celebrity females who are constantly the object of our affection, whether it'd be on TV, the movies, magazines, music videos, whatever it is. We hack into their cell phones and post their photos all over the internet. Women are not safe. You could easily imagine a woman like Scarlett Johansson being constantly gawked at. This is an actress who had naked photos of herself plastered on the internet just a few years ago. We took something away from her that she spent her entire career trying to prevent us from seeing. And this movie is the perfect fucking response to that entire controversy. You want to see me naked? You want this? Well, go ahead and see it. But I'm not going to make it easy for you. And in this movie, I am the hunter, not you. There's something very empowering and quietly confident about Johansson's performance here. She doesn't have much dialogue, but there's a way about her, a natural on-screen charisma that is explored and turned on its head in this movie.

Of course, my interpretation of "Under the Skin" may not be shared with others. I haven't really read any other reviews of the film. But Jonathan Glazer, in my view, really made a work of art here. This is a movie that's worth examining. It's worth exploring in further viewings. And it contains one of the most disturbing and inexplicable scenes that I have seen in quite some time. I don't even think I scratched the surface with this review, but it's best you go into this movie as cold as possible. Don't worry about seeing ScarJo naked. Just watch the film. Let it unfold. Don't force it to make sense to you. I watched the movie over a week ago and many of these thoughts have come to me days after I saw it. I'm sure if I saw it again, I'd get even more out of it. We have to treasure movies like these. Movies that dare to explore, dare to examine the depths and ugliness of humanity without giving us any clear answers. Because, really, there is no clear answer as to why anything happens in this movie, but it doesn't matter. This isn't merely a movie you watch, it's a movie you feel. And when you can find yourself truly getting sucked into "Under the Skin," it's an experience unlike anything else.

Grade: A

Sunday, September 21, 2014

They Came Together review

They Came Together

They came together. The best thing a movie title can do is, at the very least, give you a sense of what kind of movie you're about to watch. "12 Years a Slave" is probably not going to be a romantic comedy. You would never read the words "Dawn of the Dead" and think it's a Disney movie. There are certain movie titles where you just know exactly what you're going to get and "They Came Together" is one of those titles. You know where the movie's heart is with a title like that and, thankfully, this a movie that 100% lives up to its goofy, pervy title. It's an obvious joke, and yet it's so boldly obvious that it's something I can't help but be tickled with. They went there. And throughout the 83-minute running time, screenwriters David Wain and Michael Showalter keep the silliness and the absurdness at a high level up until the very last shot which has Paul Rudd smirking at the camera. In many ways, this is just a pitch perfect rom-com spoof.

So, tell me then, why does this have a paltry 5.4 rating on IMDB and a 41% audience approval rating on rottentomatoes? Have moviegoers lost their funny bone? Have they lost their marbles? Can they not tell the difference between a great spoof and a terrible spoof? I've even seen a critic compare this movie to "Date Movie" and "Disaster Movie." This is not one of those movies! Not by a long shot! And if you can't recognize that, then you are just not a very perceptive person. "They Came Together" is everything a romantic-comedy spoof SHOULD be. It sticks to its storyline, almost obsessively, and yet it finds time to find humor in every scene. 

Everything in this movie is slightly off-kilter. From a jar of tiny condoms to Christopher Meloni shitting himself in a superhero costume and then having the nerve to blame it on someone else... "They Came Together" manages to go into all these little directions while never getting too sidetracked to tell this incredibly trite, cliched story.

The main storyline is pretty much ripped from the pages of Nora Ephron's "You've Got Mail" screenplay. Molly (Amy Poehler) is your short, sweet Meg Ryan-type who owns an indie candy shop. Joel (Paul Rudd) is your requisite Tom Hanks, who works for a major candy corporation. Of course, the corporation seems destined to take down Molly's little shop, and yet, she falls in love with Joel anyway. 

That's pretty much all you need to know story-wise, as the rest of the movie is best left being a surprise. But what's wonderful about "They Came Together," compared to the disgustingly cynical Friedberg/Seltzer movies is that Wain and Showalter come at this material really knowing the ins and outs of a typical romantic comedy. They both love and hate the genre, that's what makes this such a pointed parody. If they just flat out hated rom-coms, then they wouldn't have been able to get all the little details right. But they got the mandatory montage which, for no reason, turns into a Norah Jones music video. They got the perfect leads to really take the material into hilarious directions. The movie really just feels like a labor of love, with a cast that's filled to the brim with talent and a director (David Wain) who knows how to make a good comedy.

Perhaps the film's only real flaw is just how cheaply shot it is. It would've been even better if it captured the ridiculous glossiness that you always see in a rom-com like this. Wain's last two movies, "Wanderlust" and "Role Models," were legit studio comedies and, I don't know, there's something about the cheapness of "They Came Together" that keeps it from being an out-an-out classic. It's absolutely insane to me that a movie with a cast like this couldn't get a budget higher than $3 million. 

Ah well. It still works beautifully. Seriously, this is one of the best all-out spoofs that I've seen since the glory days of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker. It seems destined to become a cult classic. And perhaps the best thing about "They Came Together" is the way it captures New York City. Like, seriously, it's like a whole other character in the movie! 

Grade: B+

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight review

Magic in the Moonlight

My apologies if this review seems a little rushed. It kind of was...

It's been well-documented; the fact that Woody Allen makes a movie every year. Some people marvel at this feat, others wish some of his recent films would bake a little longer in the oven. Personally, I think Woody Allen is going through a sort of renaissance as a filmmaker. Some of his work in the 21st century, particularly in the early/mid-2000s were just bad. But movies like "Match Point" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" showed that the man still had a spark in him. He still had interesting stories to tell.

Since "Midnight in Paris," however, Woody Allen's movies seem to be connected in a way. "Paris", "To Rome With Love", "Blue Jasmine" and now "Magic in the Moonlight" are both obsessed with the inevitability of death and the necessity of finding a connection with someone to share your life with. "Magic," especially, seems keen on exploring the after-life and whether or not anything happens to us when we die. And it's when the movie explores these themes is when it's at its most interesting.

Unfortunately, an undercooked script, a few phoned-in performances (particularly by Colin Firth), and a completely ridiculous "almost ruins the movie"-type ending keeps "Magic" from reaching the heights of "Jasmine" and "Paris." Firth is just unconvincing as the mean, smug magician who spends most of the movie convinced Emma Stone's character is a fraud. When he suddenly has a change of heart, he's even less convincing! I usually like Colin Firth and it's been said that Woody Allen kinda lets actors do whatever they want. So, you can have someone like Cate Blanchett who came to "Blue Jasmine" bringing her A-game, but if an actor's not willing to put their all into a performance, then you get Colin Firth in "Magic in the Moonlight."

Emma Stone was not spectacular either, but she was still entertaining as the young woman who's convinced herself that she's really a clairvoyant. Firth manages to get through the film by his natural charisma and charm, but I just didn't buy his nastiness and I didn't buy his romance with Stone's character. This makes the all-too-predictable romantic ending feel especially shallow and forced.

But the film is wonderfully shot by Darius Khondji, who makes the South of France look like magic. There was one particular scene where Firth and Stone are walking through a flower garden and I could help but marvel at how green the greens were and how the colorful flowers just popped out on the screen. It once again demonstrated to me just how seductive a movie experience can be when it's shot in 35mm.

And I also liked where Woody Allen was going with the idea of this film. There was quite a bit of humor to be found here, thanks to Emma Stone's character, who once again proves that she's one the brightest young comic actresses working today. She's tried out sultry, seductive roles in "Gangster Squad" and has played the love interest in the "Amazing Spider-Man" movies, but she's at her best when she gets to show off her comedic chops. Hamish Linklater is also pretty entertaining as the man who's completely smitten by Stone, but his attempts to court her are so ridiculous and chessy. It's no wonder he can't hold onto her.

Is "Magic in the Moonlight" watchable? Oh yes. It just does not rank anywhere near Woody Allen's recent best. Some people called out the film for being too "light," but I think that's what keeps the film from being an outright misfire. There are bits and pieces of "Magic" that still makes me think that Allen is working at a high level, hopefully his next film with Joaquin Phoenix will be more fully-realized than this.

Grade: C+