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.