Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Review: "Under the Skin"


Now let me just be clear about one thing: “Under the Skin” is not for everybody. In fact, it’s not for most everybody.

Some of you may be tempted to just look at the positive score I gave this movie or read a little bit of the review, and then will get P.O.’d when you hate the movie. In the next few paragraphs I’ll tell you some things that should give plenty of warning if you’re one of those for whom this film was not intended. I am hereby resolved of all blame if you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing.

“Under the Skin” is an art film that wears the clothes of a horror/sci-fi thriller. An American woman played by Scarlett Johansson drives a van around Scotland picking up strange men, luring them to an isolated place with the implication of sex, and then killing them. That’s pretty much the whole thing.

Supernatural forces are at work here. The woman is clearly not human; she does not have empathetic feelings toward her victims, at least not at first. Possibly she’s an alien sent here to harvest humans. And the men don’t just die; bewitched by her seductiveness, they wade into a pool of inky black goo and become absorbed, or something.

It’s unclear if the goo is a literal body of liquid or a representation of her powers. Actually, a great many things about “Under the Skin” remain unclear … but that’s as it’s intended.

In many ways the movie, directed and co-written (with Walter Campbell) by Jonathan Glazer, based on the novel by Michel Faber, reminded me of the filmmaking of Andy Warhol.

For those not familiar with the cinematic endeavors of Warhol and know him only as the guy who made art out of Campbell’s soup, he once made a movie titled “Empire” that was nothing but an eight-hour-long shot of the Empire State Building. Another, “Sleep,” was five-plus hours of a guy sleeping. In other words, he enjoyed screwing around with his audience.

While there’s nothing approaching that level of challenge in “Under the Skin,” clearly Glazer & Co. are not trying to spell everything out for us. Mostly it’s an exercise in mood and emotion, and I found the movie never ceased to engage me.

Glazer (“Sexy Beast”) carefully and methodically – slowly, some would say – uses skittery music, burbling sound effects and dark, evolving images in a way that scares us without any outright “boo” moments. Johansson is compelling and dangerous, managing to be incredibly menacing and, later, strangely sympathetic.

Most of the men she encounters look like everyday joes, and speak with Scottish accents so thick it’s at first comical, and then frustrating. I understood maybe 15 percent of what they said. Again, I think Glazer did this on purpose; after a while, we stop trying to understand their words and concentrate on how they’re ensorcelled by her.

Eventually, she encounters a man with a severe facial disfigurement, whose emotional pain and loneliness seep out of his skin like perspiration, and it knocks her off her stride. A mysterious motorcycle rider (played by real-life racer Jeremy McWilliams) who had been acting as her cohort morphs into her hunter, and we suspect this is a cycle that has been repeated before.

You may have also heard that Johansson does her first nude scene in this movie, and I’m here to report that is true. And honestly, it’s not that big a deal. This is a film about how a predator uses her body to lure men to their death, so being coy was not really an option. Nudity can sometimes be distracting in movies, but in a few cases it would be disingenuous not to have some nakedness; this is one of those times.

At first we only see Johansson from great distance and/or in high contrast shadows, and I was thinking this was going to be one of those deals where a big Hollywood star bravely goes nude-ish. But later, as the unnamed protagonist finds herself more connected to her human disguise, the camera becomes closer and more intimate in its gaze.

Hopefully, I’ve sufficiently educated you on whether there’s a chance you’ll enjoy “Under the Skin” … although “enjoy” isn’t really a word you associate with a movie like this. I found it eerie, unnerving and disturbing. There’s one scene on a beach where the woman shows such utter disdain for human life it actually left me shaking. Others may walk out of this movie simply shaking their heads.




Monday, April 14, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Men" (1950)


According to legend, when they first cast a young unknown stage actor in his first film, "The Men," the producers and cast thought they'd made a staggering mistake. During pre-production rehearsals, he mumbled his lines without barely any intonation, and wouldn't even look others in the eye.

His work in front of a camera didn't seem much better at first. In the movie he's constantly tucking his chin, turning away from the person he's speaking to and darting his eyeballs this way and that. Hardly the standard M.O. for cinematic acting of that era, with its ethos of "Stick out your jaw, and puff up your chest."

Of course, Marlon Brando wasn't your everyday actor playing a standard leading man. Ken "Bud" Wilcheck is an Army lieutenant who was shot in the spine during the war and left a paraplegic. "The Men," written by the great Carl Foreman ("High Noon"), was one of the first mainstream movies to address soldiers dealing with paralysis.

At a crisp 86 minutes, the film is a fairly straightforward drama that makes all the obvious choices, but nonetheless manages to wander into daring territory. Start with the fact that it was shot at the Birmingham Army Hospital in Van Nuys, where both Foreman and Brando spent time living with the soldier-patients prior to shooting. Eventually, dozens of them would appear in the film.

It's pretty obvious watching the movie, directed by Fred Zinnemann in one of his earliest feature film efforts, to discern who the professional actors are and who are the real soldiers. The best of the amateurs is Arthur Jurado as Angel, a body-building paraplegic with dreams (cut short, naturally) of buying a house.

His name was Angel, because if you were a Latino character in a Hollywood movie between 1940 and 1970, it was contractually required that your name be Angel.

Jack Webb is solid as Norm, the acerbic intellectual of the bunch, and Richard Erdman has fun as Leo, the wise-cracking flimflam man. But it's no surprise that Brando steals the show, showing the mix of volatility and seductive power that would become his hallmarks. He even manages to spend a great deal of the film topless or wearing one of those tight-cropped T-shirts he would make so famous two years later in "A Streetcar Named Desire."

It's funny; Brando's career was often marked by its physicality, split into two phases: lithe and corpulent. He never really seemed to have an in-between, though I guess the days of "The Godfather" and "Last Tango in Paris" hit that mark the closest.

I won't bother with a treatise on The Method versus other schools of acting -- frankly, I just don't care how a performer finds their center or sense memory or all that jazz. I judge an actor by what's up on the screen, and I think anyone watching "The Men" in 1950 knew a major new talent was on hand, even though the film flopped financially.

The dialogue isn't the greatest; Foreman was still developing as a writer. After Angel dies -- because all characters named Angel in Golden Age movies die -- Bud stews to his fiance, Ellen (Teresa Wright): "If he was normal, he'd have had a chance. You try and you try, but you're still behind the eight-ball."

That ain't exactly the Bard, but Brando still makes it sing.

Perhaps as a prisoner of its age, the story is forced to revolve around a romance. Bud at first refuses to see Ellen following his injury, but is convinced by the stern-but-caring doctor (Everett Sloane) to come around. They eventually reconcile and marry, but then the movie takes an unfortunate step where the open-hearted young woman who was more than ready to embrace life with a man in a wheelchair suddenly has second thoughts, literally on her wedding night. 

It's a false moment, and sets off one narrative stumble after another during the last 20 minutes or so.

The real heart of "The Men" is given location by its title: the camaraderie, strained and often backbiting, between this hospital ward full of brave men all suffering from the same physical and psychological wounds. If only Foreman, Zinnemann and producer Stanley Kramer had stuck to their instincts, given the boot to the dew-eyed girl, we might've really had something. 

Instead, "The Men" is justly remembered as what it is: a cinematic stepping stone.

 



Sunday, April 13, 2014

Video review: "Great Expectations"


I know, I know … you’re thinking to yourself, why should I care about the (seemingly) 3,074th version they’ve made of “Great Expectations” for film or television?

Short answer: because the new version that came out at the end of last year is one of the most emotionally engaging adaptations of a Charles Dickens’ novel I’ve ever seen.

You may not even be aware of this iteration, directed by Pete Newell (“Four Weddings and a Funeral”) and starring an impressive cast, including Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Jeremy Irvine, Robbie Coltrane and Holliday Grainger. It didn’t get much traction, barely making it into U.S. theaters.

But this may just be the best film of 2013 that nobody saw. Fiennes and Bonham Carter both deserved Oscar nominations for their fine, vibrant performances.

You know the story: a young penniless orphan (Irvine) is given an inheritance and an introduction into London society by an anonymous benefactor. He makes a mush of it, squandering his fortune and falling for a chilly, distant girl protected by her brittle ward, Miss Havisham (Bonham Carter).

Dickens himself felt that “Great Expectations” was his greatest work, but previous movie versions have tended to be stilted and unapproachable. Give this one a chance, and you won’t find yourself disappointed.

Extra features include deleted scenes, a making-of featurettes, photo gallery and more.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Review: "Draft Day"


"Draft Day" has a reliable veteran star (Kevin Costner) and an old-hand director (Ivan Reitman) but a pair of rookie screenwriters, and it shows.

Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman fall into the newbie trap of thinking more is more. They've got a great, uncomplicated premise: the general manager of the Cleveland Browns football team is desperately scrambling to make a splash on NFL Draft Day, furiously working the phones and making seemingly desperate trades as the minutes tick by.

Made with the full cooperation of the National Football League and ESPN, plus the participation of dozens of football luminaries and media figures, it has the authentic feel of a peek behind doors than remain largely closed to fans. Now, that's an intriguing enough premise out of which to milk plenty of drama, laughs and tears.

But the screenwriters keep going, and going ... and then they go a little further. They pile challenge after interpersonal challenge atop the head of their protagonist, Sonny Weaver Jr. (Costner). It's supposed to ratchet up the tension, but the story ends up with so many distractions it's hard for the main narrative to gain traction till the end.

Start with the fact that he's got an overbearing team owner (Frank Langella) who'd like nothing better than to can his GM if the day doesn't play out right. And Sonny's dad, the legendary coach of the Browns, died last week ... after Sonny fired him the previous season. He's got his brittle mother (Ellen Burstyn) butting into his affairs. Plus he's been having an affair on the sly with an underling (Jennifer Garner), and now she wants to be more than the secret girlfriend ... oh, and they've just learned they're having a baby, too.

And that's before we even get into the minutia of the actual football draft, with the various potential players, their parents and agents, and assorted intrigues.

Sonny suspects the sure-fire #1 quarterback (Josh Pence) is a bust. He's rather pick the lower-profile defensive player of proven character (Chadwick Boseman). There's also pressure to choose a sleek running back (Arian Foster) who's the son of a favorite Browns player.

The movie finally comes through after a very slow start, and the last 45 minutes or so are extremely engaging as the actual draft drama plays out. Just when you think he's done, Sonny whips out another card from up his sleeve.

Frankly, Costner is probably about 15 years too old for this role. (A maverick guy in his mid-40s contemplating fatherhood and putting down roots is fascinating; pushing 60, it's just pathetic.) But he brings a well-worn, no-nonsense solidity to the role. His Sonny feels put-upon and doesn't carry a big ego, but there's a well-tended fire in his belly. He's a naturally cautious guy desperate to throw one long bomb and hope for the best.

I also enjoyed Denis Leary as Vince Penn, the new-ish coach of the Browns who's constantly knocking heads with his boss. Puckish and manipulative, a guy who clearly thinks he's the big fish in what he considers a small pond, Vince has his own ideas about who to draft. And if that means throwing his GM under the bus to get his way, then that's what winners do.

Reitman, better known for comedy and lacking a genuine hit for 20 years, hits his stride just when the material does, when the actual draft starts. You've got that built-in pressure of having to make your pick before the time runs out or getting leapfrogged by other teams, a tension that Reitman uses well to his advantage.

(That made sound like showbiz hooey, but it's actually happened a couple of times in recent years.)

This movie would have been much better served, though, by winnowing down the side characters and subplots and focusing on the meat of what is a really compelling story. That's playing to your strengths, something every good veteran should know.




Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Review: "Ernest & Celestine"


One of the untrammeled joys of springtime is the arrival of Oscar-nominated foreign films that are just now making their way to U.S. theaters outside of New York and L.A. It seems a little crazy that “Ernest & Celestine” was shown at the Toronto Film Festival in late summer of 2012, but is just now arriving in the heartland, despite picking up an Academy Award nod for best animated feature last year.

It’s well worth the wait. This hand-drawn French-Belgian production is a sheer delight, a mix of whimsy and somber subtext that should please both children and adults mightily. My 3-year-old watched it rapturously, and then asked to see it again – despite not being able to read the English subtitles.

(There is also an English-dubbed version making the rounds that includes the voices of Forest Whitaker, Mackenzie Foy, Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally. Personally, I always prefer to watch a film in its native language, but I can see where kids not yet able to read quickly might find the subtitle experience frustrating.)

Based on a series of children’s books by Gabrielle Vincent, “Ernest & Celestine” takes us into a split world of bears and mice. Above ground, the bears go about their daily business in a Paris-like setting, complete with shops, cars and police. The parallel mouse land underneath them is much the same in a miniaturized version.

Each group fears and hates the other. The bears regard mice as vile vermin, while mice view bears as predators who eat their kind. Celestine (voice of Pauline Brunner) is a kind-hearted mouse who grew up in an orphanage, where the tyrannical old caretaker with the perfect name of La Grise (Anne-Marie Loop) weaves vivid tales of mouse tots being devoured by the Big Bad Bear. Despite this, Celestine is not afraid of bears and draws portraits of herself befriending a bear.

Meanwhile, Ernest (Lambert Wilson) lives in a dilapidated cottage in the countryside, coming to town to make some money as an itinerant street musician and feed his growling hunger. Ernest and Celestine run into each other, get into some scrapes with the law, and become fugitives while growing closer.

I loved that the primary type of commerce happening in both the bear and mouse worlds involves teeth. The mice steal baby bear teeth, which they file down to replace their own sharp incisors, so they can chew through virtually anything.

The bears have their own stores where they can pick out new teeth for themselves. One enterprising married couple runs a candy shop on one side of the street and a tooth outlet in the other, so the latter can service the bears who have rotted their teeth away at the former.

I adored the spare, expressive animation style of the film, which approximates the illustrations of a children’s book. Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner serve as a trio of co-directors, with Daniel Pennac supplying the screenplay adaptation.

The movie’s tone is sweet and simple, but there are seismic tremors of deeper portents, if one cares to listen. This is best captured in a pair of simultaneous court hearings, in which Celestine and Ernest each have to justify their affection for one another before a jury of their opposite kind. It’s a subtle comment on society being intolerant of those on their margins.

This stuff will surely go over the head of wee ones, as it’s supposed to. They’ll just have to settle for a magical little tale about a pair of unlikely furry friends.






Monday, April 7, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Les Maudits" ("The Damned," 1947)


This essay isn't about the better-known 1969 film by Luchino Visconti of the same title, but the 1947 drama by René Clément that was recently restored and given a lush Blu-ray release. "The Damned" concerns a group of German Nazis and sympathizers who flee the Fatherland aboard a submarine during the waning days of WWII, making for South America and salvation.

Ostensibly, they're on some sort of "mission" to sow support for the Wehrmacht and open a new front across the Atlantic. But with wives, mistresses and children in tow, and the senior Nazi leaders employing fake names, it's pretty clear their only real concern is the state of their own skins.

Visually, the film is bona fide masterpiece, with incredibly textured black-and-white photography by Henri Alekan that presaged much of the film noir look of American crime films of the 1940s and '50s. Alekan and Clément make terrific use of the tight claustrophobic spaces inside the sub, with all the characters seemingly having to hang on each other. All this really comes through excellently in the Blu-ray.

It's a little wobbly in terms of the narrative and characterizations, with some of the figures acting as mere collections of traits. For example, the French collaborator,  Couturier (Paul Bernard), only gets a few lines of dialogue here and there, so when he makes a desperate attempt to escape the submarine and is killed, his death carries little emotional weight.

Perhaps the most inscrutable character is the main one, a French doctor played by Henri Vidal. He's kidnapped from his coastal village when one of the important passengers suffers a serious head wound while the submarine is being pounded by depth charges. Since they can't bring her to a medical care facility, they bring the medicine to her. Once aboard, however, they can't exactly let him go and blab about their mission, so he gets to make the journey as well, ensconced in a storage room as a quasi-prisoner.

The never-named doctor acts as narrator and lens through which the audiences glimpses the "damned." He's not in open conflict with them, though he rightly suspects his life will end when his usefulness does. As a result, he purposefully concocts an epidemic of illness among the crew, which is clever if not very Hippocratic. There is a brief sequence about him trying to escape by using an inflatable raft stowed below the upper deck, but it doesn't go anywhere.

Seemingly in charge is a German general, who has arranged for his Italian mistress (Florence Marly) to be brought along with her industrialist husband, Garosi (Fosco Giachetti). Garosi knows he's a dupe and a cuckold, but soldiers on out of a sense of love lost and self-pity.

Like many of the characters, the Garosis are a mix of good and evil impulses that control them, with Mr. Garosi tending more toward the former and Mrs. Garosi more toward the latter. Even the doctor is somewhat morally ambiguous because of his willingness to inflict fake medical conditions upon his patients to save his own life. The only true innocent is Ingrid (Anne Campion), the teenage daughter of an intellectual, who later abandons her to make good his own escape.

The true locus of evil is Mr. Forster (Joe Dest), a senior SS party leader who bullies and threatens the others into following his lead, eventually even winning over the general. With his chunky black frame glasses and severe salt-and-pepper slickened hair, Forster comes across as a tyrannical engineer who treats people like wayward machines.

Most interestingly, Forster is accompanied by his "right-hand man," a young angelic-faced street hood named Willy Morus (Michel Auclair) who employs a switchblade or Luger pistol with equal skill. It soon becomes completely clear that Willy is Forster's homosexual plaything, who attends to all his needs, be they martial or intimate. At one point Forster is using his knowledge of the general's mistress as leverage during their power struggle, and the officer responds with a similar threat about Willy.

Willy himself is a rather morally shadowy figure, easily capable of murder at his boss' command, but also resentful of the way he's kept under Forster's thumb. Eventually he rebels and slays his lover/tormentor.

The ship of the damned eventually makes it to South America (no country is specified) to find that the war his over, Hitler is dead, and the submarine captain is ordered to return his ship to the nearest port and surrender. Instead, a revolt breaks out, the cargo ship that refueled them is torpedoed and most of the crew and passengers killed, with the doctor left aboard alone as the ship's ghost and chronicler.

I relished "Les Maudits" quite a bit -- it's truly a lost gem of its era, made less than two years after the end of the war. (And despite a few bits of canned footage used for some action scenes, the production values are generally quite splendid.) At a brisk 102 minutes, it's a rare film I actually wished was longer, so the characters and themes could be fleshed out more fully.




Sunday, April 6, 2014

Video review: "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug"


"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is now the fifth film to be spun out of the books of J.R.R. Tolkien, each tipping near or over three hours, so it's no surprise if casual fans of the sword-and-sorcery universe of Middle-Earth are growing a bit fatigued by now.

If you dismissed the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy as a whole bunch of walking with too many endings, then you might well be put off by the prospect of director Peter Jackson finding three movies worth of material in Tolkien's earlier, slenderer tome.

I still enjoyed the movie quite a bit, though they've ratcheted up the action set-pieces considerably over those in the book, and introduced or expanded a bunch of other characters. The net effect does tend to diminish humble hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) as the central figure of the story.

As the second film in the trilogy opens, Bilbo and his troupe of dwarves have survived a deadly trip over and under goblin-filled mountains, and must now face the daunting Mirkwood Forest rife with giant spiders and less-than-friendly elves. At the end of their journey lies Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), the fearsome dragon who usurped the dwarves' homeland long ago.

Jackson and his screenwriters tend to skip over some of the best stuff in the book and substitute it with concoctions of their own that aren't nearly as compelling -- such as a made-up elven she-warrior (Evangeline Lilly) who strikes up an unlikely flirtation with one of the dwarves.

Your interest level for this movie will likely fall in line with your ardor for Dungeons & Dragons-type of stories. If you deem it all a bunch of adolescent silliness, best to steer clear. For those (like me) who let their geek flags fly proudly, "Smaug" is essential viewing.

As with previous iterations of Jackson's Tolkien movies, video extras are just ample enough to leave you hungry for better stuff that will likely come out later along with an extended version of the movie.
You get a making-of feature, "Peter Jackson Invites You to the Set," along with some short videos short throughout production. There's also a travelogue of New Zealand where it was shot, plus a music video.

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