June 4, 2014
Although cinema is filled with singular voices, few have the distinct style emblematic of the auteur. Alejandro Jodorowsky is one such director. After a cinematic silence that has lasted 23 years, the Chilean filmmaker has returned with the movie adaptation of his 2001 memoir, The Dance of Reality (it is only available in Spanish). He’s in every aspect of this film. Not only is he literally the author of the book that is the basis of the script of the film, he— as is often the case— plays a role in the movie. On screen, the 85-year-old appears as a version of himself to narrate the feelings and impressions of his younger self (Jeremias Herskovits) from the boy’s perspective via the filter of his older self. That may sound confusing to some, but the idea of perspective is key to appreciating his new film.
Jodorowsky has never pretended that cinema, in any remote sense, stands in as a surrogate to reality as most people know it. He fills his films with allegory, myth and fables. They are also social critiques. Some lovers of Jodorowsky like take his films at face value and marvel at the inventive imagery on a subconscious if not superficial level. Others look to the symbols for a path to enlightenment. Sometimes, a sense of the personal can be gleaned from his cinema, and no film in his career has ever felt more personal than The Dance of Reality. That said, it should also be taken with a grain of salt.
With this new film, Jodorowsky takes auteurism to familiar nuclear heights, literally speaking. Though he only plays a small but recurrent role as his current self, bedecked in either a simple black or white suit, this film is also a family affair, as he extends his auteurism through his children. His eldest son, Brontis Jodorowsky plays Jaime Jodorowsky, the father who seems to bully his son into “manning up” in the film. Then there is Axel Jodorowsky, who plays the hermit Theosophist by the beach young Alejandro visits for some doses of enlightenment. Youngest son Adan Jodorowsky provides the film’s dynamic soundtrack and has a small role in the film as an anarchist. Finally, the director’s wife, Pascale Montandon-Jodorowsky, designed the film’s eye-catching costumes.
Raising his auteurism to a more familiar level, Jodorowsky has never played by any set of rules dictated by the norms of cinema. His films have often been called surreal and shocking. A sort of associative dream-logic moves narrative along, which actually stands as a more honest use of he filtered lens of the camera and the subjective decision of editing. Those who know Jodo as the weirdo director who made the first “midnight movie,” El Topo (1970), are reducing this genius director to a trivial novelty, which does not take into account his profound insight into the human soul via creativity. Underneath sometimes shocking images lies a well of insight into the hypocrisy of ideology, be it the kind that governs a nation or the one that defines a sense of self.
Tyranny stands out as a big part of this film. The film begins with the idea of material oppression. It’s all about money, as gold coins fill the screen as the director’s face fades in from the black background, comparing money to blood, Christ and Buddha. Clowns drop coins to the melody “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” Then, money cascades across a newspaper headline noting the financial collapse of 1929 (the year of the director’s birth) and the impact it had on the majority of Chileans. While the soundtrack switches to the sound of boots marching, Jodorowsky continues, “There is no difference between money and conscience.” Blood spatters the newspaper, and the director says, “There is no difference between conscience and death.” Then the film fades to an iconic Jodorowsky image: a mass of people walking through the desert.
That’s only about the first minute of the opening of the film. Already he presents an image dense with metaphor and philosophy. Intimate and adventurous, Jodorowsky has created a film filled with the surreal wit that has endeared him to his audience, but there is also a profound wisdom aware of the hypocrisy of religion and the State. Tyranny is a big thing for Jodorowsky, and it begins with an interest in materialism that seems to fuel life only to result in a futile existence without meaning.
The film then soon turns its focus to the young Jodorowsky as a lad with long, golden hair. He’s oppressed by his father who calls him “coward” and “queer” and frequently yells at him. Meanwhile, his voluptuous mother (Pamela Flores) only ever sings her dialogue in an operatic warble, referring to him as the reincarnation of her father. Oppression becomes more personal and distinctly macho and feminine. The young spirit can only flail for some sense of self, as the damaged people immediately around him project and seem to suffocate him, as they try to raise him as their only offspring.
Then there is the presence of Carlos Ibáñes (Bastián Bodenhöfer), a military officer turned dictator during two presidencies in Chile. Much of the film follows Jaime who turns his interest away from family to stand up to Ibáñes and one day, when the moment is right, assassinate him … if not, at least kill his horse. However, when he fails to accomplish this personal mission, Jaime turns cripple and disheveled and becomes a martyred political prisoner subjected to intense torture. Could this be the path to the father’s redemption? Who knows? It’s for Jodorowsky to work out, and despite many hilarious, sometimes twisted but always resonant set pieces and scenes, this struggle for redemption carries on a bit too long, and seems too far removed from his boyhood self. It’s the one part of the film, albeit a large one, where Jodorowsky goes a bit too literal.
What stands out best about The Dance of Reality are the scenes with his younger self. Though the child version always seems terrorized by Jaime, the older self is there to offer the boy’s thoughts. It makes for many particularly touching scenes of a different kind of redemption, a sort of self-redemption. It’s a blending of both suffering and healing and the growth that comes later. For Jodorowsky, life is not linear. It’s circular and carries on beyond time. He’s generous to extend it to his father, but it boils down to the self. In one of the director’s voice overs, he assures himself as a child, and by extension the audience: “Everything you are going to be, you already are. What you are looking for is already inside you. Rejoice your sufferings. Thanks to them, you will reach me.”
The Dance of Reality runs 130 minutes, is in Spanish with English subtitles and is not rated (though about childhood, it’s a mature man’s childhood in retrospect, so it’s not for children). It opens Friday, June 6, at 7 p.m., exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. Actor Brontis Jodorowsky will present the film in person on June 14. On June 15, he will also introduce Jodorowsky’s Dune and another film he stars in, Táu (see MBC’s calendar for details). On Tuesday, June 17, at 7 p.m., he, Village Voice film critic Michael Atkinson and Miami Herald film critic Rene Rodriguez will share the stage at MBC in the second installment of the Knight Foundation-sponsored series “Speaking In Cinema” to discuss this film and other works by Jodorowsky (see details). A meet-and-greet party at the Sagamore Hotel ends the night.
Photo credits: All images provided courtesy of Brontis Jodorowsky and were shot on set by Pascale Montandon-Jodorowsky. Brontis and I recently caught up via Skype. Expect to see a series of interviews as a result of our conversation in the next few days. In the meantime, read our early chat, when this film was still in production, and more via this link.
Set in Guanajuato, Mexico, Heli tells the story of the crude life the city’s residents endure while dealing with the ongoing militarization of the “war on drugs.” The opening shot augurs the harshness of the rest of the film, as we see two of the main characters, Heliberto, who goes by the nickname Heli (Armando Espitia), and Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios). Beaten and battered, they ride half-conscious in the back of a pickup truck. Heli’s bloodied face is pinned down by Beto’s boot. The camera lingers on Heli’s face for an extended shot, allowing a sense of helplessness to seep into the audience. The violent scene is straightforward, stark and shown without music; a style that is carried throughout the rest of the film.
Heli’s director, Amat Escalante was bestowed the 2013 Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival, only the fourth Mexican director to be recognized with the prize in the 68 years of the film festival. This accomplishment was no doubt a boost for the film but also proves the magnitude of its relevance. Escalante was raised in Guanajuato, the town depicted in the film. His close and personal connection to the area is palpable, as Heli shows the many layers of social disruption the war on drugs has left on Mexico.
Escalante’s genius lies on his focus on human relationships, as blossoming first love and strong family ties provide the backdrop to the action in Heli, while presenting the merciless effect of the shock waves generated by drug-dealers and corrupt police. Early in the film, we learn Heli is a 17-year-old who tells a census worker he is the head-of-household living with a wife, a baby son, younger teenage sister Estela and his father. He works at a Japanese car factory and cares for his family, struggling to do the “right thing.” Estela (Andrea Vergara) is the picture of innocence. She is involved with Beto, a boy several years older than her. The romance seems harmless enough, filled with clumsy moments of young experimentation, until Beto gets a “smart” idea involving a couple of stolen kilos of cocaine that will allow the two to elope.
Beto is a trainee with the militarized Mexican police force and has easy access to confiscated drugs. The cruelty that befalls him begins as early as the training sequences in the desert, which reveals how deeply-rooted brutality is not only in the streets but also in the groups meant to protect citizens. The irony could be lost, as viewers can easily be swept away from the big picture by one particularly stark moment during training. An American adviser shows a Mexican drill sergeant how to break the wiped out Beto, who has vomited during exercises. The gringo instructs the commander to order the collapsed trainee to roll over his own throw-up. Scenes like this unfold in static wide shots that show the contrast between the broad skyline, complete with beautiful scenes of the desert that seems so open and full of opportunity, against the small world in which Heli and his family struggle alone and left to fend for themselves against overpowering forces.
The director’s raw style allows the audience to feel something different from most Hollywood films and their depiction of violence without being led to a specific reaction. One of the sequences that has garnered the most attention is an extended torture sequence where Heli and Beto face the blow-back created by their entanglement with drugs. They are taken to a safe house associated with a drug cartel where young men (including some boys playing video games) are already waiting for them. As the torture begins, we even get glimpses of an older woman in another room, cooking. One of the boys asks, “What did this one do?” The torturer shrugs and tells the boys watching to record the scene so they can later upload the footage to YouTube. The savagery unfolds as if the audience was in that tight space with nowhere else to go. Again, there’s no showy camera use, distracting editing or added music beyond the drone of the video game.
The representation of brutality is one of the main themes in the film. Far from glamorizing or presenting a stylized version of it, Heli presents the raw and unpleasant nature of what it’s like to witness violence. There is no escape from what is happening on-screen. You will not walk out of this movie feeling like drug traffickers are “cool” or that our hero “wins.” Heli‘s take on violence is more faithful to reality and far removed from any Hollywood characterization of violent conflict. One is immersed into the sociopolitical rooting of savagery in what otherwise would seem like a sleepy town in the less developed areas of Mexico. Indeed, the complex social situation that emerges from dealing with corruption, the flaws in an economic system with few opportunities for working class people and the dismantling of trust among neighbors who are either part of the drug trafficking economy or not, are all present in Heli.
The ongoing victimization of the characters goes beyond their encounter with drug traffickers who are tightly entangled with police. It shows why many are hesitant about reporting crimes or engaging with the state during such perilous times, as they can be further victimized. The situation is not particular to Mexico; it occurs in many other places, even at home in the USA. A powerful reminder is the recent documentary The Invisible War, which grapples with the story of military rape survivors who are continually victimized by that institution. Few bother speaking out and when they do, it’s like they are fighting a downstream current. Heli vividly characterizes a similar kind of hopeless victimization, though it does offer at least a form of catharsis at the end of the film.
In all, Heli is not subtle about its criticism but shows the intricacies of the current state of affairs in Mexico with a disturbing, visceral flair. However grim depictions are, people in Heli go on as life goes on too. Not all is lost, the human spirit is resilient, and the youth of Estela as well as her brother may symbolize that, for young democracies, it is still a long vertiginous road.
Heli runs 105 minutes, is in Spanish with English subtitles and is not rated (the violence may be difficult for some to sit through, however). It opens this Friday, May 30, in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, Bill Cosford Cinema and the Tower Theater.
Program Note: Independent Ethos critics Ana and Hans Morgenstern will introduce Heli on opening night at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, at 9:15 p.m. and again Saturday, at 7 p.m. Let us know if you will be there by signing up on our Facebook event page. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website here.
Of all the filmmakers across the globe, the French always seem to deliver the deepest ruminations on human relationships through intimate corporeal exchanges. One of France’s best is François Ozon. Though his film last year did not completely impress me, his newest stands as one of his best in a long time. Young & Beautiful follows 17-year-old Isabelle (Marine Vacth) exploring her newfound sexuality by prostituting herself over the Internet and facing the consequences once her divorcée mother, Sylvie (Géraldine Pailhas), finds out about her sexual escapades. The impressive thing about the manner in which Ozon handles the drama is that he never looks down on his protagonist even while recognizing her imperfect choices.
When one considers how Hollywood handles female sexuality, it’s either chaste, superficial or deviant. Even foreign directors are guilty of getting it wrong sometimes; Lars Von Trier certainly botched it up with his (unintentionally?) hysterical portrait of a woman and her sex life with Nymph()maniac. With his new film, Ozon certainly proves he understands women with more depth than Von Trier, who seems obsessed with working out his personal demons through the feminine identity. Ozon’s insight comes out bracingly when Isabelle has to face the consequences, not with society, but with her heartbroken mother. Vacth and Pailhas bring a delicate pathos to their characters that speaks to both the hard lessons that loom for Isabelle and her mother’s regret of youth gone by.
The film introduces us to Isabelle while she is on summer vacation with her family, who also includes younger brother Victor (Fantin Ravat) and stepfather Patrick (Frédéric Pierrot). Alone on the beach, she hesitatingly removes her top. The action happens through the lenses of a pair of binoculars. It will turn out that her little brother is on the other end. Later, it is he who pushes her to give up her virginity to Felix (Lucas Prisor), a German tourist she seems to have grown fond of while on this trip. When she does it, Victor wants to know all about it. To some, this might seem like incest by proxy, to others, these are children left alone to discover what is this thing called sex. Let’s face it, most kids learn about it through experience, and it’s ultimately personal.
Beyond Vacth’s restrained performance, Ozon captures her anxiety with an appropriately reserved style uncharacteristic of his earlier films. He uses camera gestures sparingly, so when cameraman Pascal Marti pulls in to the actress’ face after Felix casually invites her to a party, it draws the viewer in to her internal experience as opposed to making a spectacle of it. Sex isn’t easy for this girl, and she has high expectations. When it does happen, in a rare instance of overt stylization for this film, Ozon presents it as an out-of-body experience for the teenager. There is still a rawness to the scene, as it features nothing more than her clothed Self standing on the beach watching her ravaged, almost catatonic body being aggressively humped by Felix. It becomes a memory she hesitates to relate to Victor and wants to leave far behind. She does not even tell a close friend at school she has lost virginity even as she coaches her on how to handle sex for the first time. There is clearly a gap there in connecting sex to herself, so no, the audience should not be surprised when Isabelle takes the name Lea and presents parts of her body on the Internet advertising herself as a 20-year-old call girl.
Ozon grants her forgiveness in another stylized scenario. Students in her class take turns reading Rimbaud’s “Novel,” with its famous opening line, “No one’s serious at seventeen.” They read against a solid blue background, a scene that recalls a similar moment from Ozon’s last film following a sociopathic student from In the House. But Young & Beautiful does not dwell on such craft for long. Besides a montage of the older men caught in the ecstasy orgasm with Isabelle, Ozon maintains a severe yet tender tone throughout the film. There is life for this young woman after this nefarious journey into the dark side of sex. She does try a house party with schoolmates she once wrote off as “runts,” cruising the rooms filled with uninhibited youths to the intoxicating sound of M83’s “Midnight City.” But it turns out it’s not that easy to begin a new life again. That no easy resolution comes to Isabelle’s life speaks to how complicating her exploits have affected her life. It should be difficult, and Ozon does not taint it by offering any easy, trite conclusion.
Young & Beautiful is a refreshingly emotionally complex film that follows a young woman’s growth in a world weighed down by double standards. Even her mother is not excused from culpability. But the heart of the drama lies in the trust that is lost between mother and daughter, as the mother understands the potency of Isabelle’s gesture. It’s a moving thing to watch as these two generations of women tangle with the aftermath of this predicament. It cuts to a core of a young woman’s relationship to her sexuality that few male directors can handle so well and with such focus. There is some ironic use of French pop songs, but no added bits of sentiment can add or subtract from the substance of this drama, and thankfully Ozon seems quite in touch as only the French can be with such a subject.
Young & Beautiful runs 95 minutes, is in French with English subtitles and is not rated (considering the subject, it’s clearly for the more mature audience member). IFC Films provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. It opens this Friday, May 23, in South Florida at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, Bill Cosford Cinema and the Tower Theater. It is also available on demand, but it’s a beautiful big screen film. For screening dates in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website here.
(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
With X-Men: Days of Future Past, Bryan Singer returns to directing the characters he first successfully brought to the big screen more than 10 years ago in X-Men (2000) and X-Men 2 (2003). In between he directed the fanboy-maligned Superman Returns (2006), the even less liked Jack the Giant Slayer (2013), not to mention the underrated, though problematic, Valkyrie (2008). After these diversions, among others, one has to wonder… Does he still have the touch that made the first two X-Men films so enjoyable before he handed the series off to Brett Ratner, who directed probably the least liked film of the franchise, X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)? Can his new X-Men film measure up to the humanity director Matthew Vaughn brought to the series with X-Men: First Class (2011)? And how far gone is the witty, suspenseful director who gave us The Usual Suspects (1995)?
The last question is the easiest to answer: The old director is long gone, sucked deep into his passion for superheroes first manifested with the early X-Men films before going wayward and indulgent with Superman Returns and then hitting a wall with Jack the Giant Slayer, the director at his most cold and dispassionate. Unfortunately, his time spent with mediocre films has a presence in X-Men: Days of Future Past. It’s made plainly clear when considering what Vaughn brought out of the youthful X-Men characters in First Class. In the hands of Vaughn, who burst on the scene adapting a darker group of wayward heroes with the excellent and harrowing Kick-Ass, the X-Men felt human in a manner the franchise has never felt before or since. When Michael Fassbender as Magneto and James McAvoy as Professor X tangled verbally while coming terms with their powers and the role they had to play on this planet, the script and the director gave them space to explore their burden without over exposition. The British actors stepped up with performances that made the characters seem like something more than cartoon characters. Those performances were the best special effect of the entire film.
There’s just no room for that kind of soul in this epic version of the X-Men, and it’s fun an diverting, as these summer tent pole films should be. However, as Vaughn proved (not to mention Christopher Nolan and Marc Webb) these superhero films can still have soul brewing below the digital effects and stunt choreography. X-Men: Days of Future Past has an uphill battle for space to flesh out our heroes, as the drama is packed not only with characters but doubles some of them. With time travel at the heart of the film’s plot, the drama sees the younger mutant heroes in a parallel story line with their elder counterparts.
All the actors are back, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, McAvoy and Patrick Stewart as a younger and elder Professor X, and Fassbender and Ian McKellen as Magneto. There’s also Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique and even Ellen Page playing the most essential Kitty Pryde role of the entire series. All are quite capable thespians, but the film just feels too concerned with set pieces and action sequences to allow for much feeling. There are even expositional speeches some characters give on their own histories to help clarify who they are to the plot and where they are emotionally. Ultimately, it is futile to look for any redemption beneath the 3-D effects and the convoluted plot of this new X-Men film.
That said, no one is going into an X-Men film expecting to feel emotionally involved with the characters unless you’re bringing childhood sentimentality with you. The film literally cuts right to the chase in a world in ruin where our hero mutants are being hunted down by giant robots called Sentinels. Kitty Pryde has mastered the ability to send the consciousness of one her fellow mutants back in time, so her rag-tag group of familiar heroes old and new can stay a step ahead of the attacks. As this on-going war unfolds, the drama includes lots of action sequences. Singer’s longtime editor John Ottman also provides the film’s punchy orchestral music that accentuates the action a bit too literally sometimes. Like the campy ‘60s-era Batman TV show, punches are often emphasized with musical stings. The battles with the Sentinels, though, are vicious affairs that feature many dying mutants. Thanks to time travel many get to the chance to die more than once, some in quite horrific ways, even if they are ripped apart in their elemental states. But it still seems futile. Only when Wolverine volunteers to have his consciousness delivered to the watershed moment of these Sentinels, in the early ‘70s, does hope seem to arise, but he’ll have to convince an embittered, young Professor X about his mission.
It’s telling that despite all the thrilling melees between mutants and sentinels and the twisty plot, that a brief moment alone with one character steals the entire film. There’s a glimpse into the experience of Quicksilver (played impishly by Evan Peters) with his power to speed himself up through the moment while everyone else around him practically freezes. He, Wolverine and Professor X are trying to bust Magneto out of a maximum security prison when they are confronted by security guards who fire a barrage of plastic but deadly bullets. Quicksilver saves them all before Wolverine can even extend his claws. It’s a split second, but it’s drawn out to two and half minutes as Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” is used to score the “action.” The melancholy classic adds a nice dimension to what would be just a mere humorous set piece. Peters captures a sort of loneliness in an almost mundane expression of his mutation, as he sets the guards up for profound failure before they can even realize it. It’s a brilliant scene in a film that certainly does not forget humor in the face of apocalypse, but more significantly, it has a bit more resonance in highlighting how lonely these heroes can feel, which cuts to the core of the perpetual us vs. them message behind the X-Men.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is a fine action movie, and it will do well for the ongoing domination of superhero movies at the box office. Singer knows he’s not creating anything more than this. You can tell that even in how he handles the exaggerated ‘70s wardrobe of the characters. He knows he’s not obliged to re-create the ‘70s of American Hustle or Boogie Nights. That’s why it’s kind of funny to see Peter Dinklage in a polyester suit and a Tom Selleck mustache. It’s all comic book exaggerated, and everyone steps up with the degree of severity that these kinds of films call for. But it’s a miracle what spending a little time with a character does to flesh out the proceedings.
X-Men: Days of Future Past runs 131 minutes and is rated PG-13 (some mutants suffer brutal deaths, there’s an impactful use of the phrase “fuck off” and you get a gander at Jackman’s backside). 20th Century Fox invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review. It opens in theaters pretty much everywhere this Friday, May 23.
Ten years after Birth either impressed or upset audiences, the uncompromising filmmaker Jonathan Glazer blasts back into the movie theaters with one of the strangest science fiction films ever. Under the Skin follows an alien disguised as a woman (Scarlett Johansson) cruising the streets of Scotland in a big van. She’s looking for men. She wants their skin, and she’s armed with her sex appeal.
This could sound like a variation of Species, which featured another beautiful celeb playing a man-eater, but Under the Skin is so focused on mood over narrative clarity, it feels like an art film. It’s the perfect approach for science fiction. An alien subject should feel alien. Few seem to recall that George Lucas made such a grand first impression with THX 1138 because he presented a future world made incomprehensible on purpose. He did not have characters explain the weird TV shows they watched or how a holding cell can be a pure white backdrop and nothing else.
Under the Skin has a similar moment, except the background is black. Once the alien, who we come to know as “Laura,” has caught her prey and lures him past the front door of some decrepit, boarded home, the screen jumps to the black background. Laura walks backward, peeling off her clothes slowly. The man strips naked and stays in steady pursuit of the temptress. With his penis erect and only blackness surrounding them, it is as if desire has metaphorically given way to tunnel vision. Nothing else matters but the beautiful, curvy woman stripping before him. He never seems to notice that with every step he takes, he sinks deeper into the blackness. Laura stops walking backward and removing her clothing only when the top of the man’s head disappears below her toes.
There are several variations of this scene, and they begin with Laura pulling up to solitary men with the pretense of asking for directions. What she really wants to know is whether anyone will miss them once they are gone. After hearing the right answers, she will invite them in her van. There’s an odd naturalism to the acting during these scenes because, it turns out, the director used hidden cameras to shoot them while he and a few crew members hid in the back of the truck. Johansson the actress seemed unrecognizable to the unsuspecting men she pulled up to under a short, puffy brunette wig, as she ad-libbed many of these chats with a London accent. The idea that these scenes were shot with hidden cameras adds a meta-layer of creep factor to an already uncanny movie.
Johansson dives into the challenge with gusto, working off her environment and situation more so than acting off a fellow actor. It’s almost like acting at gunpoint, and she exposes a layer of vulnerability that’s both chilling and enchanting. It helps that her character only speaks when she needs to. Her warmest exchanges involve figuring out her prey. There’s one incredible moment on a beach where she tries to seduce a swimmer who is trying to rescue a drowning couple, which reveals her single-mindedness to ominous effect. The man leaves her at the shore, the couple’s crying baby sits in the distance. Laura’s eyes are always fixed on the swimmer. The camera observes the botched rescue from a helpless but observational distance. Even after the scene has ended, Glazer amps the dread up a notch by cutting away later that night to the screaming toddler left alone to languish by the shore, the merciless sea lapping ever so closer to him. This is one unsettling movie.
Glazer came to feature film from a background in commercial and later music video production. That school of filmmaking has given us with such fascinating filmmakers as David Fincher, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, among others. Just like these filmmakers, Glazer understands how to present narrative and mood beyond the traditional narrative arc. He’s the guy behind the narratively obtuse yet still eerie Radiohead video “Karma Police:”
Also, based on gut, I wondered if he directed this startling video for “Rabbit In Your Headlights,” a collaboration between Radiohead vocalist Thom Yorke and the trip-hip duo UNKLE. He did. It happens to feature an amazing bit of acting by Denis Lavant, an actor well-known for pushing his physical limits and working with another inventive director, Leos Carax:
As a man from music videos, Glazer knows how to use music in his cinema. His earlier films, Sexy Beast and Birth had their moments, but Under the Skin stands as his strongest melding between score and visuals yet. During the opening sequence alone, Mica Levi’s soundtrack captivates. Fading up from silence, strings rapidly chug and vibrate like some deconstructed version of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score. A swelling electronic drone fades up until the strings fade out, leaving only the humming drone. Throughout you are left to wonder about the visual accompaniment, a point of red light, the iris of an eye seem to eclipse. The backdrop is clinically white. There may be a needle. The only concrete hint of what might be happening is in the title of Levi’s piece: “Creation.” Throughout the movie music recurs for both ambiance (variations of the spine-tingling sing-song melody accompanying the scenes in the black room) and illuminating the character’s development (a gradual, lush warmth develops in tracks like “Love”).
Glazer is indeed a brilliant stylist, but underneath his style lies a complicated ambivalence toward humanity. The film alludes rather directly to the perils of casual sex and the blindness to consequences caused by lustful desire. It’s a statement that starts feeling redundant were not for the variation of how many articles of clothing Laura removes in the recurring scene inside the black void and the deeper the director allows the viewer to see into the darkness of where these men end up (and it’s a disquieting revelation accompanied only by nearly silent underwater sonics that will leave some viewers feeling a bit claustrophobic).
If predatory Laura embodies the dangerous side of hook-ups, a change will occur alluding to a redeeming, non-judgmental humanity that arises when Laura’s last victim emerges (Adam Pearson*). He’s the ultimate lonely man. He only goes to the store at night, wearing a hood to hide a face disfigured by tumors. A kink arises from the choice of this victim that puts her on the run. The only one in pursuit seems to be a man on a motorcycle who, at the start of the film, gave her the skin she has donned to roam this world. The motorcyclist (who happens to be played by Irish star motorcycle racer Jeremy McWilliams) rides a sleek crotch rocket and wears a full leather riding suit. He looks like an interstellar traveler even though it’s nothing that would appear out-of-the-ordinary on earth. But there are moments when his presence seems to call too much attention to itself. Whether he catches up to her or not maybe does not matter, but who he is might have helped add a bit more substance to his relationship with Laura and his stake in her. Still, the distant high-speed rides featuring McWilliams are one of the film’s many invigorating, kinetic visuals.
Further on in Laura’s solitary growth, something human emerges from melding with her skin. It’s important to consider a brief scene early in the film, when Laura removes the clothing from her deceased doppelgänger. Though seemingly lifeless, the body sheds a single tear as Laura undresses her. This could be seen as an allusion to human awareness carrying on through the skin. Otherwise, it feels difficult to understand why Laura seems to have a change of heart about her mission.
The attempt at transformation goes rather tragically for her, however. She cannot use her body to enjoy the human pleasures of chocolate cake or sex. Despite her human skin, it is nothing but superficial. Between two extremely different encounters between two different men, her story turns heartbreaking. Though first portrayed as a predator, Laura earns the viewer’s sympathy in small steps, from tripping in the street to being swarmed by drunk girls to taking in a damaged soul and paying him compliments he’s probably never heard. The film drops more of these bits until pummeling the viewer with a well-earned tragic finale.
In the end, science fiction has never felt more enthralling. Glazer obscures narrative enough to create the feeling of threat simply with the unexplained. Levi’s soundtrack— her first— stands as one of cinema’s greatest scores to amp up the creepy atmosphere, and Glazer couples it with equally disturbing imagery that will remain hard to shake long after leaving the theater. Here’s a film where one can honestly say, “You’ve never seen anything like this.”
Under the Skin runs 108 minutes and is Rate R (It’s gory and Scarlett Johansson famously does several full nude scenes). It starts May 15 at Miami Beach Cinematheque and the following day Cinema Paradiso – Fort Lauderdale and The Cinema Paradiso – Hollywood.
May 9, 2014
Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch’s long-awaited vampire drama has to be one of the better date movies I’ve seen in a long time. There is something beautiful yet romantically slippery about the exquisitely matured bond between the vampire couple at the heart of the film. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) may be the first vampires of time immemorial. With so many centuries behind them, Jarmusch, who also wrote the script, presents this couple as the antithesis to the naive lovers in the Twilight Saga.
Stunningly stylish from beginning to end, Jarmusch treats the idea of long-surviving/suffering vampires in only the way he can, with brilliant wit and heartfelt respect. Beyond jokes like the characters’ names, Jarmusch profoundly considers the effects of immortality on the minds of these creatures, both positively and negatively. Eve can speed read Infinite Jest, and thoughtful Adam tends to agree with Einstein’s critique of quantum mechanics: “Spooky Action At a Distance.” She lives more in the moment, taking up residence in an opium den in Tangiers and in the company of Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) who apparently faked his death in 1593 to carry on living as a vampire (he’s still bitter about Shakespeare). Meanwhile, Adam languishes in a big old house in the appropriately ghostly city of Detroit. He surrounds himself with dated electronics and uses rare instruments to compose experimental music on reel-to-reel tape to be released on limited edition 180 gram vinyl with no label. To stay in touch with Adam, Eve uses Facetime on her iPhone while Adam uses a low-resolution webcam attached to a PC tower.
As with any romance movies involving mature individuals, love can get complicated, even with this decidedly progressive couple. Over the ages, Adam and Eve have developed a becalmed relationship. They don’t raise their voices at each other and despite the huge geographic gulf and differing lifestyles, their affection for one another does not waver. Still, a sort of tired undercurrent runs below the surface of their relationship despite a magnetism of shared experiences and an emotional investment that goes back centuries. They don’t just have chemistry, the have a fusion as deep as old bones calcifying to become one. They are tired, old souls incarnate.
Ultimately, Adam’s loneliness becomes palatable to Eve from across the globe, and she books a red-eye to fly to Detroit. He’s gone a tad mad and depressed, turning into a hoarder of sorts. Once at the cluttered mansion, Eve stumbles across a wooden bullet Adam had obtained from his human connection to the black market, Ian (Anton Yelchin). It upsets Eve with a quiet frustration, yet she handles it delicately, recognizing it as a call for attention more than a threat. The real kink comes in the unexpected arrival of Eve’s younger sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who must have turned undead before her frontal lobe had fully developed. She’s the most troublesome of the quartet. While the other vamps prefer anonymity, Ava’s rather reckless. Wasikowska plays her with a wide-eyed precocious smile. She’s like a mischievous elf hiding in the shadows ready to pounce with a prank. Her character adds a colorful bit of comic relief to the mostly dour proceedings.
Still, all of the film’s characters are a delight, even if the film’s plot is spare and ambling. As it is with most Jarmusch films, it’s all about the dynamics between the characters, and he keeps the narrative focused on the nighttime activities of the vamps. The entire movie appropriately unfolds in the shadows, against a perpetual nocturnal backdrop. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, working with Jarmusch for the first time, delivers varying scenes using diverse degrees of focus and colored filters for different shades of atmosphere.
It’s all about the vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive, and they are ironically soulful characters. Humanity has somehow lost touch with slowing down and savoring life, unlike these undead culture vultures. Jarmusch places humans in the periphery. Some human characters are only shadows in the distance. They roam the world on a diet of junk food and junk culture to the point that their blood has grown literally unpalatable to the vampires. Adam and Eve don’t dare bite anyone’s neck for fear of contamination by impure blood. Instead, they look for pure Type O-negative on the black market to sip out of sherry glasses. The vampires don’t even refer to mortals as human. Instead, they call them “zombies.”
The film’s score and musical sequences deserve highlighting, beginning with the sumptuously absorbing score by lute player Jozef van Wissem backed by Jarmusch’s very own band SQÜRL. The opening scene introducing us to the vampires is a brilliant montage featuring a perpetually rotating camera, turning the image around the screen at what seems to be 33 rpm— the speed of a record player. The detailed art design, augmented with beguiling costumes, all twirling ’round can feel dizzying. The sensation is heightened further with the growling vocals of Cults’ Madeline Follin and the super-delayed echoing of a blues-infused electric guitar weaving around a stomping, slow beat, which is occasionally accented with a single ringing chime. It’s a bit of sensory overload, but it captivates all the same. It could work brilliantly as a music video.
It’s not the only time music takes over for narrative of Only Lovers Left Alive in enchanting ways. When the vampires satisfy their thirsts, they act as if they are slipping away into an opiate high. The shallow focus of the scene allows their faces to drift away into blurs, fangs exposed, maws bloody and half-agape. The scene is scored with Wissem lazily dragging a melody across his multi-stringed instrument, varying each refrain with a high note and a low note. Below, a guitar squeals a low, wash of feedback. It’s an enthralling moment, which thankfully recurs once more during the course of the film.
The film is filled with many delightful scenes, as it strides along at a relaxed pace that never tries the audience’s patience, despite its two-hour-plus duration. Clearly, Jarmusch has spent a lot of time thinking about his version of the vampire. Even when they are troubled, like Adam, or deviant, like Ava, they remain interesting and even endearing. With Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch has created a rich world that also provides a witty jab to the immature, pop-culture obsessed consumer who does not seem to know how to stop and savor the more complex arts. Yet, Jarmusch is not above offering a bit of self-deprecating critique back at his over-seriousness as channeled by these vampires. Despite its quirks, Only Lovers stands as one of his greatest and still entertaining personal statements in a long time.
Only Lovers Left Alive runs 123 minutes and is Rated R (there’s blood and gore, as can be expected in a vampire movie. They also talk dirty). A shorter version of this review appeared in my recap of the 31st Miami International Film Festival, which invited me to a screening during my coverage of the festival. It opens in South Florida this Friday, May 9, at the following theaters:
Regal South Beach
Cinemark Boynton Beach
It could already be playing near you or be on the way. Visit the film’s website for more dates and locations.
Update 2: More South Florida art houses have announced dates for Only Lovers Left Alive: It opens Friday, June 27 at Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale (get tickets)and Cinema Paradiso Hollywood (get tickets). On July 11, it arrives at the Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables (get tickets).
Earlier Update: In Miami, the indie art house O Cinema has now booked Only Lovers Left Alive. It starts Friday, May 23. Buy tickets here.
Film Review: ‘Finding Vivian Maier’ presents interesting portrait of reclusive woman within blatant commercial
May 8, 2014
Though it celebrates a creative person yearning to express herself above monetary gain and fame, there’s something disconcerting about the new documentary Finding Vivian Maier. The problem is apparent from the beginning, when co-director John Maloof inserts himself in the story to define success for the woman photographer who never achieved recognition while alive. It starts with a box of photographs he found during one of his treasure hunts at a low-rent auction house. He would uncover hundreds of prints, negatives and even roles of undeveloped film. He puts some of the images up on the Internet, and he’s surprised with the interest. Cha-ching!
But, no! He does it for the art. He seeks appraisal from professional photographers, who tell him, at best Maier was a prolific but mediocre artist. No matter, according to the comments, shares, etc. on a Flickr post featuring Maier’s photos, the Internet likes the work. He has an exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center, located in the city where Maier took most of her street photos in the 1950s and 1960s. The people come. There is interest. He signs prints in her absence and fills in orders from the hungry public who see something in the photographs of Maier worth paying fine art prices into the thousands of dollars. He also has the work archived and tries to find out who the woman was, and here is where the story gets interesting.
Maloof who also shot the film but co-directed with Charlie Siskel finds family members who hired her as a nanny. The children have grown up, and do they have some stories to tell. At first, these anecdotes start intriguingly with the interview subjects invited to sum up their experience with Maier using one word. “Eccentric” is used more than once. It would turn out taking the children out to the park allowed Maier to take her street photographs. It also gave the kids learning experiences that left profound impressions on their psyches. One woman recalls one outing when Maier took her to a sheep farm where she saw death in all its horror. Though it proved a downright grim experience for the child, it made for some great photographs for Maier, who seemed to have a kinship with Diane Arbus for the work’s grit but minus its surrealism.
These stories gradually reveal both a sad soul with a penchant for hoarding and a woman looking to express herself in defiance of the glossy notion of the idealism of the ‘50s and ‘60s. She even prefers a matte finish on her prints. Maloof uncovers recordings she made, self-portraits and even receipts to tell her story, beyond the talking heads. It paints a rather full picture, and unlike the way he presents the work (he does have an interest in making it profitable, after all), it’s an intriguing wart-filled portrait that adds depth to her work, which often features imperfect people caught in unguarded moments thanks to the Rolleiflex camera she used to shoot with, which was positioned around the waist instead of at eye-level.
She’s an intriguing, flawed human being who found an outlet to express herself while remaining reclusive and ultimately dying alone. But, actually the film feels like the worst kind of self-promotion above art. It’s the businessman taking full advantage of art without the artist benefiting. It’s decorated in this feel-good movie. Oh, what a wonderful thing Maloof has done for a woman with no legacy or inheritors. There’s something rather disingenuous in the motivation behind this film. What really matters is promoting the art as something harmless and nice. Cue the sprightly, pretty music building from fluttering flutes to jaunty strings to connote success and look at the crowds that attend gallery openings (look, there’s Tim Roth!). It all feels so self-important it gets rather sickening. There is a hint that maybe Maier had wanted to have these photos published somewhere, but most of all she produces with a human urgency to communicate, even if it’s after her death.
So the question most interestingly posed by this film is whether the work of Maier is art after all. Maloof defines it as an interest by the public (and there’s a lot for him to benefit from with that perspective). But, thankfully, he also defines it in the stories about Maier and who this woman was, a person who could not seem to put down her Rolleiflex camera. Like all good art, it depends on how you look at it. I just wish I only had to watch half of the film, instead of the commercial component and all the self-promotion disguised as feel-good Success(!) that really does nothing honest to redeem this sad woman ignored in life beyond two adults she cared for as children, who decided to put her up in her twilight years in an apartment … far away from them.
Finding Vivian Maier runs 83 minutes and is not rated (human fallibility abounds). In the South Florida area, it opens at O Cinema Miami Shores on Thursday, May 8, the Miami Beach Cinematheque and Living Room Cinema 4 in Boca Raton, on Friday, May 9. IFC Films provided a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. The film is also playing nationwide and on demand; visit the movie’s website for screening dates (this is a hotlink).