Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Under the Skin

Strange, striking, beautiful and unsettling, Under the Skin (which is exactly where this movie gets) marks director Jonathan Glazer’s third film, after Sexy Beast (2000) and Birth (2004). I generally recommend his movies with caution, this one included, but not for lack of cinematic value. Glazer’s bold, fearless style evokes Stanley Kubrick at its best times, as does Glazer’s sparse filmography (Kubrick directed only 11 films in his career). Under the Skin challenges with an ambiguous narrative, but beautiful filmmaking on all fronts and a haunting score by Mica Levi combine for something unique and unforgettable - an experience that, enjoyed or not, cannot be ignored.

An extraterrestrial disguised as a beautiful, unnamed woman (Scarlett Johansson) roams the streets of Scotland, seducing men and then trapping them through otherworldly means. Over the course of her time on Earth, she comes to view both the human race and the world around her in new ways.

Arthur C. Clarke wrote voiceovers for certain sequences of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Kubrick rejected them, wanting viewers to be challenged and to decide for themselves. Similarly, Under the Skin is loosely based on a novel by Michel Faber, and though I haven’t read it, I’m guessing it contains a bit more information (including the lead character’s name?) than we receive here. Even the basic knowledge that she’s an alien isn’t made clear until the final sequence. Instead, we’re shown just enough pieces of the puzzle to keep us guessing as to what we’re seeing.

Most science fiction observes aliens from our perspective; we meet visitors from other worlds and wonder at the strangeness of it all. Under the Skin turns this around, showing us our own world through alien eyes. With very little dialogue, the camera follows the main character through shopping malls and crowded nightclubs, environments that, without context or understanding, seem like the strangest places imaginable. Her character develops differently than I might have guessed; she seems confident early on, driving down streets and seducing men with the skill of a professional, but the longer she stays in our world, the less she seems to understand. Human complexity gradually confuses and overwhelms her.

What does she do with these men she seduces? Even that remains unclear. The seductions themselves are beautifully-filmed sequences where she walks across dark water, shedding her clothes along the way. As men follow, they sink below the surface and are trapped. I first thought this was a visual metaphor for sexual seduction, but as the film continued, I took it more literally. One standout, haunting scene transpires below the surface as two of her victims observe one another through the watery haze.

Aliens have long had a place at the movies, sometimes handled with wonderment and care, more often loudly and predictably. With Under the Skin, Glazer contributes something new by showing just enough and telling almost nothing. His less-is-more style fits the subject matter; Johansson’s character is an outsider who never fully understands us, and we never fully understand her. Too strange and contemplative to be a mainstream hit, Under the Skin will be most appreciated by those who enjoy dark, art house cinema, and by fans of the alien sub-genre who think they’ve seen it all.



For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language

Scarlett Johansson appears naked a few times throughout the film, as do several men. Two of the alien’s victims share a frightening moment that I’ll not spoil, but it’s bizarre and otherworldly. An attempted rape ends violently. In its content and challenging presentation, Under the Skin is a film for discerning adults.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Continuing its unprecedented success, the Marvel Cinematic Universe marches onward with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This entry falls on the high end of the spectrum, not quite at the level of Iron Man or The Avengers but a good deal better than Iron Man’s two sequels and the Thor movies. The first Captain America was stronger than expected, and this sequel surpasses it. Despite the time gap of 70 years between the two stories, writers found clever ways to connect the films thematically, delivering a sequel that leans heavily on action while still spinning an engaging and worthwhile tale.

Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) has trouble trusting government organization S.H.I.E.L.D. due to director Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) numerous secrets. Once the safety of certain S.H.I.E.L.D. members becomes compromised, Captain America partners with Natasha Rominoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) to uncover the faces behind the threat, including a masked, super-powered assassin known only as “The Winter Soldier.”

Someone at Marvel has been watching some 1970s political thrillers (and that’s a good thing), because in its tone, The Winter Soldier recalls such classics as Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View. Nothing is what it seems, and no one can be trusted, not even our own government. Despite having never done a big-budget comic book picture like this, Robert Redford seems right at home as senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce. Casting Redford was a masterstroke, as his very presence further evokes the great political thrillers of old, and his talent helps ground moments that could have come off as silly. The other noteworthy newcomer is Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie). Anthony Mackie’s energy and likability make Falcon a welcome addition to Marvel’s superhero lineup, and Mackie and Chris Evans have great chemistry.

The best Marvel movies impact the Marvel Universe at large. While Iron Man 2-3 and Thor 2 have their strengths, you could skip them and not need much if any catching up. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a game changer. Major events unfold that will affect not only future movies but also Marvel’s current TV series, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Bigger stakes make everything more interesting, action scenes included (of which Winter Soldier has plenty).

The first Captain America took place during World War II: the type of good-vs.-evil setting in which a character like Captain America makes the most sense. For its modern-day sequel, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely found clever ways to not only emotionally connect the two films but also keep Captain America an interesting and relevant figure. Joss Whedon took the character in the right direction in The Avengers, and The Winter Soldier goes further down that path by introducing even more moral ambiguity. In a world of uncertainty and deception, a code-of-ethics man like Captain America can at once become unsure of his role while also providing a moral center the audience can root for.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t go too deep with its political intrigue (it’s first and foremost a superhero movie, after all), but it does tap into two current US initiatives that continue to be causes for concern: the use of drones for assassinations and the mass surveillance of US citizens. Winter Soldier does well to address these issues not only for relevance but also because of all that Captain America stands for. When Nick Fury describes some of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s controversial practices, Cap responds, “This isn’t freedom; this is fear.” While he might have seemed goofy or out of place on screen twenty years ago, a superhero dressed in red, white and blue who represents core American values seems almost refreshing today. As Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) tells Captain America in The Avengers, “With everything that's happening, the things that are about to come to light, people might just need a little old fashioned.”


For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, gunplay and action throughout

Violence in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is on par with other Marvel films - frequent and occasionally intense but not bloody or graphic. Moral complexity and ambiguity over who’s good and who’s bad could be challenging for younger viewers.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

American Hustle

Like many great crime pictures, American Hustle has no moral compass, no sense of good guys or bad guys. Standing in the rubble of post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America, American Hustle’s disillusioned crew sees the American Dream as something no longer realized through optimism and elbow grease; it has to be taken and by any means necessary. Based loosely on the FBI’s ABSCAM operation of the late 70s/early 80’s, American Hustle combines one part Goodfellas with one part The Sting (though it’s not quite at the level of either) to tell an engaging tale of schemers, con artists, and the craziness they endure in the pursuit of being somebody.

Opening with the humorous and unapologetic preface, “Some of this actually happened,” American Hustle follows con artist Irving (Christian Bale) and his girlfriend Sydney (Amy Adams), partners in selling scam loans and forged artwork. Apprehended by Federal agent Richie (Bradley Cooper), the two agree to aid the government in making other arrests in exchange for their freedom. As the operation deepens, Richie’s personal ambition proves dangerous, and Irving’s unbalanced wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) threatens to undo everything.

The opening shot lingers on Irving as he meticulously glues his unimpressive hair piece. There’s an unmistakable futility about it but an even stronger sense of vanity, setting the stage for everything to follow. Here are characters devoid of real happiness and detached from reality. Their focus remains ever inward, and they view those around them (even their would-be friends) as opportunities in the game of getting ahead. Director David O. Russell (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) excels at portraying craziness from an inside perspective, tinged with just enough humor to keep things buoyant.

American Hustle boasts a slew of strong performances, but it’s Christian Bale who holds it all together. His Irving repeatedly ties his own noose, yet we root for him to slip out of it again and again. He deserves to answer for his actions, but we hope he doesn’t have to, largely due to likability imbued by Bale. He and Amy Adams have great chemistry, and their characters’ internal narration early in the film is one of many bits that evokes Goodfellas. Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner round out the ensemble with varying brands of selfishness and instability, and Louis C.K. takes a fun turn as the only responsible person in the room.

Costumes look more like 70s theme-party pieces than authentic period attire, enhancing the overall sense of decadence and detachment from reality. These characters aren’t interested in blending in; their only options are “go big” or “go home.” The artistic choice to exaggerate everything made for a more enjoyable picture than if the material had been presented straight. Filmmakers played loosely with clothes, hair, dialogue and plot details, putting entertainment above accuracy. What began as a true story became “some of this actually happened,” and the movie’s better for it.

With a good deal of humor thrown in the mix, American Hustle effectively portrays criminal life in all its complexity. Highs dip to lows in a flash, and the elusive American Dream remains forever around the next corner. Momentum slows two-thirds through where a little editing would have gone a long way, but the narrative rallies at the finish line with a fun twist, leaving us to reflect on the sheer insanity of it all.


For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated R for pervasive language, some sexual content and brief violence


Apart from pervasive profanity, overall tone and emotional instability make American Hustle a film for adults. Also, while there isn’t any nudity per se, Amy Adams breasts consistently remain partially exposed.

Friday, January 24, 2014

August: Osage County

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “All women become like their mothers; that is their tragedy. No man does; that is his.” August: Osage County explores many disappointments, but none more so than the displeasure felt by children of emotional abuse upon seeing their parents in the mirror. Based on Tony Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play of family dysfunction, August: Osage County may have lost a little electricity in the transfer from stage to screen, but razor-sharp writing and pitch-perfect performances make for a captivating adaptation.

Pill-popping matriarch Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) calls her daughters home after her alcoholic husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard) goes missing. Ivy, the middle daughter, (Julianne Nicholson) is the only relative already living in town besides Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband, Charles (Chris Cooper). Oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrives with her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor) and 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin), and youngest daughter, Karen (Juliette Lewis), brings her sleazy new fiancĂ©, Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Over a period of days, tensions come to a boil as the Westons wrestle with disappointment, loss and the inescapability of family.

For all of their similarities, theater and cinema remain different mediums with different strengths. Live theater offers the intimacy of being present, a movie camera creates intimacy of a different sort, and any movement between those worlds will change the overall impact of the material. That change can be good or bad; recent stage-to-screen adaptations Doubt and Frost/Nixon excelled on the big screen. August: Osage County makes solid use of scenery and setting, but with the performances, the camera cuts both ways. Close-up shots enhance some moments, but for others, I wish the camera had stayed wider to include more faces. Close-ups tell you where to look, but at a play, you look where you want. August has so many master chefs in its kitchen that the camera sometimes seems in the way.

Letts’ dialogue, cutting so deftly between comedy and tragedy, demands great performances, and this ensemble delivers. At the helm stands Meryl Streep, a living legend at the top of her game, chewing scenery in the best sense of the term. She sells Violet as a cruel (“not being mean, just truth tellin’”), domineering woman tipping into instability. As the eldest daughter, Julia Roberts throws fire like I haven’t seen from her in years. Julianne Nicholson breathes quiet, complicated life into Ivy, the daughter who stayed in town and bore the brunt of her mother’s spite. I could go on about every performer; there isn’t a weak link in this chain.

As great theater often does, August: Osage County withholds key information until the right time, hitting the viewer with multiple bombshells. There’s an exhilaration as the tumblers click into place, revealing new layers of sadness just when it seems there can’t be any more. People sometimes laugh in the midst of tragedy, saying that they have to laugh or else they’d cry, and that effectively sums up August: Osage County’s bleak humor. At a certain point, comedy becomes a survival mechanism; there’s humor amidst the madness because there has to be. There’s something in this cornucopia of sadness and dysfunction for everyone to relate to; spanning illness, addiction, emotional abuse, divorce, and above all, disappointment, August: Osage County mimics its main character in exaggerating reality, often harshly, in order to do its own truth tellin’ about life.


For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated R for language including sexual references, and for drug material


August: Osage County maintains strong language throughout and deals exclusively in mature themes.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Ender's Game

Since its release in 1985, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game has amassed a sizable fan base, spawned several sequels, and come to be widely regarded as one of the great science fiction novels (if not the greatest) of the last 30 years.  Scott Card once declared the book “unfilmable,” but writer/director Gavin Hood has risen to the challenge, delivering a satisfying film that falls short of the intelligence and complexity of the source material but that stands on its own and gets the big stuff right.

Years after fighting a war with an alien race, humanity prepares for what it sees as the inevitable next confrontation.  An international military alliance establishes Battle School, an academy designed to produce tactical strategists by subjecting brilliant children to rigorous training.  Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a gifted 12 year old boy, enlists in Battle School at the urging of Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford).  As Ender rises within the ranks via a series of war games and simulations, he learns more about his enemy and himself.

The Battle Room makes for some of the book’s most memorable scenes, and the film doesn’t disappoint.  This immense, zero-gravity training ground looks gorgeous onscreen, and the war games the students play come off as simple and complex at once.  Within the vast, glass-enclosed sphere, teams of students attempt to cross to their opponents’ gate while avoiding being shot by weapons that immobilize them.  It’s in these sequences that the film feels most alive, so much so that I wouldn’t have minded spending a few more minutes there.

One of the biggest differences between the book and the film is the overall timespan; in the novel, Ender enrolls in Battle School at age six, so by age 12, he’s been training for half his life.  On screen, those six years are condensed into one; the change makes sense (switching actors would be jarring, after all), though it muddies a few plot points, especially Ender’s relationships with his sister and brother.  The scenes on Earth with Ender’s family ring hollow, and without proper explanation and character building, Ender’s relationship with his sister never resonates the way it should.

Lead performances are strong with a mix from the sides.  Asa Butterfield’s performance effectively suggests the combination of insecurity and superiority inherent in a young genius.  Harrison Ford and Viola Davis lend credibility as high-ranking military officers, and Ben Kingsley (the disclosure of whose character name would constitute a spoiler) brings some needed dramatic weight to the film’s third act.  Haliee Steinfeld, who was so memorable as Mattie in True Grit (2010), does well with what she’s given as Petra, one of Ender’s best friends in the school.  Unfortunately, some side characters come off more like caricatures than real people, undermining the seriousness of the setting.

The story addresses the moral complexities of war and of placing belief systems on children, with the finale being especially thought-provoking.  Ender’s Game achieves momentary greatness when firing on all cylinders, but little cracks in the presentation (occasional weaknesses in dialogue, acting, or visuals that look more like polished effects than gritty, wartime realities) prevent the film from meeting its full potential.  A few tweaks could have improved it, but Ender’s Game retains the crucial components that made the book a phenomenon.  I hope it turns viewers toward the source material, as anyone intrigued by the questions raised onscreen would find even more to love on paper.


For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some violence, sci-fi action and thematic material


Ender’s Game contains some violence, though not as much as the book. You don’t see much blood, but as Ender faces bullying from his classmates, he fights back pretty viciously to defend himself.  Even though the hero gets in some fights (he has adopted a military mindset, after all), retaliatory and preemptive violence is not necessarily celebrated.  It’s a morally complex story.