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.
September 28, 2012
Time travel and dystopia: two key tropes of the science-fiction genre. With Looper, director and sole screenwriter Rian Johnson has breathed a fresh verve of visceral life into them. After bursting onto the scene with the neo-noir Brickand falling a bit flat with the Brothers Bloom, Johnson returns to feature directing with a couple of “Breaking Bad” episodes under his belt and a sure-handed confidence.
Looper stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also co-executive produced the film, impersonating Bruce Willis, who plays his character Joe in the future. The only misstep in Looper maybe the makeup Gordon-Levitt wears to look like Willis, which sometimes feels surreal but other times seems distracting. Gordon-Levitt has the Willis mannerisms down (that cool, half-interested reserve). That’s all many films have demanded to attach two different actors playing the same character.
The film takes place in a future where mobsters rule crowded cities, and you can shoot someone in the back in broad daylight for trying to take your stuff. The invention of time travel 30 years in the future (2072) allows for the two Joes to meet in this current past, 30 years into our future (2042). With time travel, the mafia’s hit men have become semi-skilled junkies (loopers) who just wait for their targets to be zapped back to 2042, who they take out pointblank with handheld cannons called blunderbusses. Usually, the targets arrive bound and hooded, making for easy hits. When Joe’s future self arrives hands free and staring him back in the eyes, the younger Joe chokes. Old Joe easily overtakes him because he has the experience of the future, not to mention who-knows-how-many groundhog day-like opportunities of having lived these encounters. The marvels of time travel.
The film’s gimmick may seem to rely on young Joe fulfilling his contract to kill old Joe so he might live out his future 30 years with happy abandon. But Looper has many more interesting things up its sleeve. The future seems to arrive thanks to capitalism gone awry and the loss of human rights. Technology has only advanced to make cell phones smaller, computers holographic, motorcycles wheel-less and drugs as easy to take as eye drops. Otherwise, most everyone seems to be a squatter living in decrepit buildings or on the street. The fact that some people are born with a “mutant” telekinetic ability they never seem to master beyond floating a coin an inch above their palm feels like a cute aside. However, Looper does not waste a single plot-point. When old Joe’s reason to avoid his death sentence comes to light, his mission in 2042 proves gasp-worthy.
At just under two hours long, Looper may sound long for a time travel sci-fi flick, but it earns a downshift in tone and pace by the film’s midpoint for an impressionable climax. Johnson knows what he’s doing when he seems to drag out young Joe’s respite from the chase at a farmhouse with Emily Blunt’s single mother Sara and her 10-year-old child Cid (Pierce Gagnon playing too-smart-for-his-age with creepy timing). This slower section is broken up by Old Joe’s scorched-earth rampage back in the city but also with a gradual deliberateness to allow the viewer to invest in these characters as channeled by some fine actors. Of course, not all movies need to run two hours long, but Johnson knows how to extend and earn the quiet moments with wit, and a revelation that follows will prove breath-taking.. You wonder why some films seem to pass through you like fast food? Those are the 88-minute, non-stop movies, which numb the mind via a barrage of action, horror, comedy and even dance moves, sapping any emotional investment by not pausing for a moment of reflection. A payoff does arrive in Looper beginning with a hired gun in search of Joe who appears at Sara’s door.
A well-earned series of plot twists and conflicts in morality will soon unfold that will leave the viewer wondering which characters they should sympathize with. It will surely leave some on edge. Looper built up the urgency to a sense I had not felt since I saw Drive last year. I felt as conflicted about these characters as I did for those in that ingenious identity mind-bender from Hong Kong, Infernal Affairs, which inspired Scorsese’s the Departed.
Johnson has produced a film with such confidence, you can forgive him for taking any perceived liberties with the rules of time travel and its effects on the notion there is only one continuum of existence (of course, it’s beyond that, thanks to quantum mechanics, so get over it). Looper indeed has a playful side, but Johnson turns on the dread just as quickly, making for one of the better, smarter science fiction films surely to leave all sorts of viewers satisfied.
Looper is Rated R (the violence does get gruesome) and runs 118 min. It opens in wide release today. TriStar Pictures invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.
Thanks to the Cultist blog at “the Miami New Times” I had a chance to speak with one of Spain’s most exciting young directors, Nacho Vigalondo about his new movie, Extraterrestrial. His 2007 film about murder, time travel and lots of mystery, Timecrimes, remains a favorite film of mine from that year (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). As I told him after he called me from his home base of Madrid this past Sunday, it takes a sure hand to deal in the narrative trickery of a time travel film. “It’s really flattering when I go to festivals, and I realize with great surprise a lot of praise for Timecrimes,” he said, “but sometimes it’s a terrifying situation because I totally know that my new film can be understood as quite the opposite.”
The “new film” he was referring to is Extraterrestrial, a movie he said he considers a spin on the screwball comedy, something very different in tone to Timecrimes. Asked if he felt any pressure to come up with a follow-up, he answered, “It’s funny because at this moment I feel like I had a big success with Timecrimes. But it was rejected in other countries even before going to Spain. It was a festival film instead of a big box office sensation. I didn’t feel Timecrimes was a success at that time. I can feel there’s a growing cult towards the film, but it’s not enough at the moment, so I don’t feel that pressure. I understand that for many people Extraterrestrial is the first of my movies they are going to see.”
As part of the Miami International Film Festival’s upcoming 30th anniversary season of activities, he will visit Miami this Saturday to introduce the film and stick around for a Q&A afterward with the audience. He said he looks forward to the audience’s reaction. “I love to be there with the audience because it’s a comedy, and when you direct a comedy, you become greedy, and you want to hear the reaction of the audience and the laughter,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. I know it’s kind of a childish feeling, but if I write a comedy, I love to hear the laughs.”
For more on his new and very different movie, Extraterrestrial, and details on this Saturday’s event, read my story in Cultist after the jump, through the image below:
September 12, 2011
Though it was David Bowie‘s first starring role in a feature film, Nicolas Roeg‘s 1976 movie the Man Who Fell to Earth is far from a star vehicle, and much more a movie firmly in place with the ambiguity of narrative immersed in the striking visuals of the Roeg canon. Of course, Bowie’s performance as an extraterrestrial on film inspired no-brainer comparisons to his alien rocker character on stage: Ziggy Stardust, a musical persona he had only just retired in 1973. Also, Bowie’s fey manner, inhumanely skinny frame, pale skin and shock of orange hair suited the movie so well the man himself seemed a special effect. Even now, on its 35th anniversary, as the film finally makes the rounds in its original director’s cut at US art houses with a newly restored 35mm print or HD theatrical projection via Rialto Pictures, Bowie stands out among the other iconic seventies-era players in the film (Rip Torn, Buck Henry and Candy Clark). It’s fitting his character, unlike the others, never ages in the film. It suits the film that the iconic Bowie has grown more immortal with age, continuing to influence generations of musicians. For Bowie fans, it is easy to watch the movie just to watch the man in action at the peak of his creativity. On the commentary track of the now out-of-print Criterion disc, Bowie noted that he began recording bits of his influential experimental pop albums Station to Station and Low while acting in this movie, assuming Roeg wanted him to score the film, too. Instead, John Phillips offers a widely varied score from atmospheric to funky, but still always dated and firmly stuck in the age of the mid-seventies.
But the movie stands the test of time as something other than a platform for Bowie-ogling*. This movie is also a distinctly Roegian work. Bowie himself decided to work on this movie based on the Roeg films Walkabout and Performance (which featured a rocker Bowie admired: Mick Jagger [again, see commentary track]). Bowie even admitted to never having read the script before agreeing to act in the movie (ibid).
Often compared to Robert A. Heinlein’s sci-fi book Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), the original 1963 Walter Tevis novel the film is based on, the Man Who Fell to Earth offers a moral tale about power and corruption. In the movie, Bowie plays an alien who lands on Earth in search of a means to restore water on his dying planet. He assumes the alias Thomas Jerome Newton, a British businessman with a briefcase full of patents that should make him the money necessary to fund a private space program that will somehow save his planet. However, he does not figure in the eccentricities of Earthlings— with their liquor and sex— and things get tough for Tommy fast. It’s a straight up enough story that almost comes across as a simple fable. But Roeg takes it to a whole other level, seeming to deconstruct the source material, converting the story into a purely cinematic experience.
Gone are key dramatic sequences that connects the downward spiral of the alien. When Thomas meets Mary Lou (Clark), the hotel maid that becomes his companion on Earth, she rescues him from the odd gravitational effects of an elevator. Distraught, Mary Lou carries the incapacitated Thomas to his room. After he vomits up some clear ectoplasmic goo and she wipes his bloody nose, she seems relieved to have not killed a hotel guest. Who would figure these two would end up together? Well, the following scene, both are hanging out in the room. She is dressed for a night out, drunk and pushing liquor on Thomas, who refuses, happy with only water and Aspirin. In the next scene, they are living together and she’s bringing him “that white wine you like.” Up to that point, the film went out of its way to point out Thomas did not drink, but then, all of a sudden he is drinking.
The movie is filled with convoluted narrative compromises like that. As Thomas establishes his corporation World Enterprises, at the start of the film, Roeg also parallels the story of Dr. Bryce (Torn), a university chemistry professor in the habit of sleeping with freshman female students who also seems to be a consumer of World Enterprises’ products (including a camera with self-developing film). Just as his superior at the university seems ready to fire him, he quits. Next thing you know, Bryce is working on a fuel project for World Enterprises, snooping out Thomas as something else than human. Again, as explained here, it all seems simple enough, but Roeg seems to obscure the flow with quick cuts, camera sweeps and zooms, punctuated by sudden bursts of blaring music. It’s as if he is purposely trying to distract the audience away from the story, and insisting they simply watch the movie.
There are many instances of odd visuals and sonics that serve as transitions. An early one occurs when Thomas seals the deal with patent lawyer Oliver Fransworth (Henry) to start a company. Thomas looks out into the night sky where a crooked line of dots expand and burst into fireworks but all one can hear is what sounds like the quiet swell of soft music that sounds like the calls of humpback whales. Later, as things begin looking grim for the drunken, corrupted Thomas, there is an image of him in alien form tumbling in space in what looks to have been formed from sputtering time-lapse imagery to the grim sound of Gustav Holst ‘s famous orchestra of “the Planets.” If you blink, you might miss the moment, as it lasts but a few seconds. Complicating matters is that it appears in the movie just as Thomas and Bryce sit in the desert outside some dilapidated house where Thomas seems have taken residence (why or how long he has been there is never explicated), in what seems a quiet moment. The orchestra swells, and thoughts seem to turn to Thomas’ dying family. Then comes the tumble and fade into an frantic scene of reporters crowding Thomas in a head-to-toe body suit, as he walks to the space ship that should carry him home. Over the din, is the chatter of news reports, talking about Thomas, World Enterprises, Farnsworth. Roeg cross cuts to Fransworth seeming to pay-off an hysterical Mary Lou to let go of the man. “I don’t want your money, I want Tommy!” she screams. It’s one intense, penetration after another into the narrative. You barely notice that Thomas is actually being kidnapped.
When World Enterprises ultimately collapses, reasons are never explained, but terrible things follow, and Thomas ultimately becomes a science experiment and finds himself stuck on Earth. But understanding how things happen in the movie seem of little importance to Roeg. He still manages to squeeze emotion from these proceedings with stirring abstract imagery. There is one death scene that offers pure cinematic poetry of music, editing, lighting and sound. The routine and wordless reflection to the loved ones Thomas has left on his dying planet appear in the film for only a few moments at a time, like some alternate reality squeezing into the cracks of Thomas’ life on Earth. Roeg is creating a film flowing of memories, exploiting the power of the medium to maximal effect while subverting expectations of narrative, bringing to mind the style of Jean-Luc Godard, if maybe he had taken speed.
The Man Who Fell to Earth is indeed so striking visually, it (and other Roeg films) inspired one of Big Audio Dynamite’s early hits. As Mick Jones, BAD’s frontman, and former Clash singer/guitarist, sings on the 1985 single “E=MC2: “Space guy fell from the sky/Scartched my head and wondered why.” The video even featured many clips of Roeg’s movies:
Back in that era of cinema history, science-fiction offered an invitation to filmmakers to not only explore other worlds and make technology, it also meant you could do what you want with the basic tools of cinema. Released the year before Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and George Lucas’ Star Wars, Roeg’s film came at the end of the sci-fi film as intellectual genre/abstract cinema pieces, a revolution famously pioneered by Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. With Spielberg’s human and relatable touch, Close Encounters brought sci-fi down-to-earth while Lucas made no secret of the Flash Gordon serial influence on his movie, which opened the floodgates for the return of simplified popcorn sci-fi, including such dreck as Roger Corman’s Starcrash and Battle Beyond the Stars.
It’s wonderful to see the return of films like this one and World on a Wire (which I reviewed here: Fassbinder’s prophetic 1973 sci-fi work ‘World on a Wire’ finally sees theatrical release) to cinema houses. For the Man Who Fell to Earth‘s 35th anniversary, a restored 35mm print has been struck of the 139-minute director’s cut. I had an opportunity to preview the digital transfer of that print ahead of its release at the Miami Beach Cinematheque over the weekend. It’s not too far removed from the Criterion blu-ray in quality, but the cinematic presentation cannot be beat. In the projection of the film, my litmus test was to see how badly the orange of the opening titles bled into the image, but the picture was clean and crisp.
You can even easily overlook the grain contrast of the archival images of a rocket separating in space versus the shots filmed of it “crashing” to earth. There is nothing to gripe about with this film, technically, and is dynamism image-wise is never compromised by this new image. Even the shadows are painstakingly clean. The datedness of the film is wiped away to allow the image to breath in full effect on the screen. For a movie that indeed exploits the cinematic medium as brilliantly as this, one has to see it in the theater, and the pay off is immense. I’ll leave you with Rialto’s new trailer for the film:
And for fun, here’s how the movie was first sold to American audiences in a trailer suitably featuring no dialogue from the film (As the voice-over [by William Shatner no less!] puts it at this trailer’s opening, “This is one of the most unusual films you will ever see”):
The Man Who Fell to Earth will premiere in South Florida in newly restored high-definition digital projection, Friday night (Sept. 16), at 8:50 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. It will play through Wednesday night (Sept. 21), at 8:50 p.m. each night. The MBC invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review. If you live outside of South Florida check The Man Who Fell to Earth’s website for its screening schedule.
*Some Bowie fans will be happy to know that, yes, this the famous, original cut that features Bowie frolicking in bed with Clark in all his natural glory, a scene which the original US distributor decided to cut from the first version when it debuted in the US.