Saturday, 10 January 2015

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Under The Skin

Directed by: Jonathan Glazer

Produced by: James Wilson
Nick Wechsler

Screenplay by: Walter Campbell
Jonathan Glazer

Based on: Under The Skin by Michel Faber

Starring: Scarlett Johansson

Music by: Mica Levi

Cinematography by: Daniel Landin

Editing by: Paul Watts

Studio(s): Film4

Distributed by: StudioCanal (United Kingdom)
A24 Films (United States)
Mongrel Media (Canada)

Release date(s): August 29, 2013 (Telluride Film Festival, premiere)
March 14, 2014 (United States)
April 4, 2014 (United States)

Running time: 108 minutes

Country(s): United Kingdom
United States

Language: English

Production budget: £8 million/$13.3 million

Box-office revenue: $5, 380, 251

It's a typically rosy winter's day in January, and I'm sitting down, reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot and wallowing in the sonic soundscapes of The Sisters Of Mercy. Oh, how ponderous and philosophical, I would probably consider myself a hipster but for the fact that I have a serious lack of irony, and let's face it, most hipsters only say they read Dostoyevsky, and none of them are cool enough to listen to The Sisters Of Mercy. Yes, that's another good one, Callum, attack others so as to mask your own insecurities and inability to come up with a sufficient opening paragraph. Blah blah blah. So, for all the latest and greatest according to the movies, keep your eyes posted!

Today's film up for review is Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer's latest film, which came out near the beginning of 2014 and for various complicated and rather boring reasons have only got round to having a look at now. It premiered at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival, and was screened at the Venice and Toronto International Film Festival's, from there building up near enough what could be described as a cult reputation, even in the short span of time since initial release. As mentioned on the film's official Facebook page, it was named as one of the best films of 2014 by over a hundred publications, and topped no less than nineteen different top ten lists of the year, including that of The Guardian, British Film Insitute readers, critics Robbie Collin of The Daily Telegraph, Stephanie Zacharek of The Village Voice, Andrew Shearer of the Athens Banner-Herald, among others. However, it must be noted that even though critical opinion has been largely positive, a lot of people, critics included, have been put off by the film. Kaleem Aftab of The Independent called it "laughably bad" and Henry Fitzherbert of The Daily Express quipped "it didn't get under my skin, just on my nerves." Also, despite the acclaim, it has made as much a dent so far in the major awards nominations as it did at the box-office, where by quite a margin it failed to recoup it's budget. So, it stars Scarlet Johansson (on quite the roll of late, with Don Jon, Her, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Lucy and erm, Chef, to her name over the past eighteen months) in the lead role. In Glasgow, Scotland, a motorcyclist picks up a young woman's body and puts her in the back of a van, where a naked woman strips her of her clothing to don them herself. This woman, played by Johansson, proceeds to drive the van around Scotland, picking men up off the street. It's one of those movies that'll have me either sounding silly or not doing the film justice if I explain to much of the plot, the understanding of which has to be gained from actually seeing the film. I will try to shed some light on it, but this is something you have to experience for yourself, and thus the review will be a reflection of my personal opinions of the film. Got that? Good!

Starting off with the good here, Under The Skin is fronted by an amazing central performance from Scarlett Johansson. Onscreen for virtually the film's entirety, she does a fine job of holding this whole thing together. While the film altogether is a fine piece of work (more of which...), without this spellbinding work it would all be for nought. The casting of her in this role as a predatory alien seductress is a masterstroke. It is nigh on without dispute that she is an attractive and beautiful woman, but this casting and her performance, which is inflected with many nuances, sees that the audience is challenged in their own prejudices. Furthermore, if you are to look at this as a character study, you can see that there is a very subtle, skilful transformation over the course of the picture. Beginning as a base creature, as I mentioned, predatory, acting upon instinct, Johansson's alien picks up in her associations with people the complexities of human emotion. I found it very powerful to see this character begin to feel fear, doubts and anxieties, especially after spending much of the film coldly consuming potential suitors. Utterly convincing, it's one of the best performances in a film from 2014, and in a banner year in her career, perhaps Johansson's best work to date. Also, while the screenplay is credited to Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer (adapted from the Michel Faber novel), much of the film is improvisatory by nature. Many of the men Johansson's character picks up were played by non-actors filmed by hidden cameras in unscripted conversations, who would later be informed, as Glazer said, "through what extremes they would have to go if they agreed to take part in the film once they understood what we were doing." Although quite clearly this is a brisk screenplay, with Glazer and Campbell knowing where things would end up, I always think that a certain element of chaos, a faith in the unknown, can do a film the world of good, and this is certainly the case. Earlier on I mentioned that the film would not work at all without Johansson's performance, and while it is certainly the pivot on which it balances, build around that are so many interesting elements which make it a truly great film. As perhaps to be expected from Glazer's history in music videos, the cinematography by Daniel Landin is terrific. It's a balancing act between strong technical choices and aesthetic stimulation. The digital photography gives the picture a sense realism, a disturbing familiarity despite all the surrealist imagery. Speaking of imagery, the film provides some of the most stark, haunting symbolism I've seen in a movie over the past few years. I'm not going to go into detail, because I don't want to spoil some of the majesty of the picture, but it's been a couple of weeks since I've seen the film now and there are things in it that are firmly engraved, etched upon my memory, and I reckon they will be for some time. Also, in conjunction with the cinematography there is some highly imaginative use of visual effects to go with it. Normally visual effects are associated with big, bloated blockbusters, but here, they serve an aesthetic purpose to the story. For instance, in the scenes were Johansson's alien plies her 'craft,' if you will, seducing men, their consumption is depicted through sparse juxtaposition of clashing images. As such, it might lack the gore and splatter of something like Species, but for all their suggestiveness, these scenes are all the more horrifying. Paul Watts' editing also contributes greatly to the film's overall feeling. Combining the potent realism of the cinematography and the alien quality of the visual effects into a hybrid being more brilliant than the sum of its parts. Even still, while he backs up the work of the various other contributors to the film, he has his own moments to shine. The stunning opening sequence, which has all the potency from a visual standpoint of 2001's famous Stargate sequence, is what sets the mood from the off, establishing this as a very different kind of picture. Maintaining the mood is the consistently offbeat and avant-garde score by Mica Levi. For those of you who don't know, when I review a movie generally I will listen to the music of the given film, to get me a gist once again of the overall feeling of a film. What listening to this again reminding me of was just how much it contributes to how off-kilt it makes the movie feel, how it makes you feel as though there is something genuinely nasty at work here. This experimental score, done probably with minimal instrumentation, sounds much bigger and fearsome with the superb editing. It sounds like chamber music recorded in a deep, dark castle, echoing and reverberating back and forth, back and forth, in much the same way it is constructed through use of loops and repeated hooks. A screeching viola plays throughout the seduction scenes, and funnily enough, synthesisers, electronic instruments often associated with being inhuman, become more prominent as Johansson's character develops (or develops an understanding of) human emotions. Finally, while all of these individual elements operate well in and of themselves, I think that Jonathan Glazer has to be credited for seeing that the pieces all come together. As I mentioned earlier, there is a purposeful element of improvisatory chaos, with Glazer leaving things open so that happy accidents could occur in the process of filmmaking. Werner Herzog has over the course of his illustrious time as one of the all-time greats often done things like this. However, like the great Herzog before him, Glazer also has a purposeful direction as to where he wants to take this film. He masterfully guides this story from beginning to end, almost tending it like a child, letting it find itself naturally to it's own conclusions. Her also ensures that the film remains consistently abstract, so that whatever meaning we bring to it or feelings, positive or negative, are reflected upon our interpretations of the film. I mentioned Herzog, but in fact the past filmmaker whose work this is most similar to is that of Luis Bunuel. This is a provocative, stimulating work that, while harkening back to the Spanish surrealist master, establishes Glazer as important, contemporary artist. As I said, it's open to interpretation, but whenever Johansson's alien begins to feel the same negative emotions that her victims were feeling earlier in the film, you do not feel vindicated or that it is justified given her previous actions, but wholly sympathetic towards her character. That is a combination of all the elements in a great film coming together to make a masterpiece, which I conclude generally to be, to take the adjectives from Kanye West, a beautiful, dark and twisted fairy-tale among the best films of 2014.

Now, as you can tell, not just from the sheer amount of words said but the positive sentiment in the rhetoric, I loved Under The Skin. I think it is a distinctly cinematic masterpiece, a work of art that could only be achieved so fully within the medium of the movies. However, much as I loved it, I have to acknowledge that there are people who will be troubled by the film, and indeed, I too find the film at times troublesome. One only has to look at the comments on Facebook or YouTube links to the film to see that there are people who really hate the film, and frankly I can understand that. This is an art film that is by no means designed for a mass market audience and is not a picture designed for consistent repeat viewing. I myself will watch it again, but not with the ease and regularity of something like, say, Gone Girl, still my favourite film of 2014, and that film is about forty minutes longer than Under The Skin. Like I've said in the past, often when it gets to the upper echelon, separating them apart often comes down to feeling, and as such, while I greatly enjoyed Under The Skin, I can't quite say it's as good as something like Gone Girl.

Despite the fact that I acknowledge some of the polarising reception towards the movie and that, frankly, it does not invite repeat viewings, I found Under The Skin to be one of the very best films of 2014. It is fronted by an amazing central performance from Scarlett Johansson, and along with Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl, is among the front-runners for my Best Female Actor in a Lead Role from 2014, it's a masterfully shot picture by Daniel Landin, whose cinematography works in tandem with the expressive and stark visual effects. There are some images in this film which will be indelibly etched upon my memory, and they are soldered together with seamless grace by editor Paul Watts, whose opening sequence completely sets the mood for the film. If Watts sets the mood, it is Mica Levi's experimental, avant-garde score that maintains it. All of this is tended wonderfully by Jonathan Glazer, who acts almost as a sower planting seeds, tending his garden and letting them grow of their own accord into something majestic. This is a dark and rather poignant fairy-tale that moved me, to the point of tears, in fact, and is a highly thought-provoking and stimulating piece of work. 

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 9.2/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Good, good (busy on the reviewing front!)

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