Monthly Archives: January 2015

Peeling back the ‘Skin’

Creepy ScarJo? Welcome to "Under the Skin."

Creepy ScarJo? Welcome to “Under the Skin.”

In the late 1990s, when The Thin Red Line hit theaters, I happened to catch a viewing that was also attended by a number of WWII vets, some of whom had fought in the Far East. I followed them out of the theater, listening to their furious tones, red in the face at what they’d just seen. What was that? That wasn’t what the war was like! I was there, and that didn’t happen. And so on.

It’s a classic case of people getting into a movie they really know nothing about. The reviews at the time were very clear about how director Terrence Malick operated and continues to operate. He’s prone to voiceovers, eschewing dialogue if possible, more interested in the internal struggle than external relationships. He often focuses on the natural phenomenon amid the turmoil as well as the turmoil itself, lingering on vegetation and animals, slowly drifting from scene to scene. Malick’s films aren’t what I’d generally consider character or plot driven. More often, they are a meditation on a subject. The Thin Red Line isn’t Saving Private Ryan, and it was never meant to be. Malick just doesn’t operate like the majority of his fellow filmmakers. Which is fine, if you as a viewer know that’s the case heading in.

Know what this is? Let's just say you really, really don't want it happening to you.

Know what this is? Let’s just say you really, really don’t want it happening to you.

Warning: There be spoilers ahead.

I look back at this experience because I wonder how many male viewers picked up Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin with solely the thoughts “naked Scarlett Johansson alien” in their head. And while Under the Skin does deliver on that, it’s not an exploitative, Hollywood sci-fi film by any means. No mad scientist bent on destroying the world, no invasion of mean and angry insectoids from another universe, no monstrous sea creatures rising from the depths of the ocean to battle giant robots. I kind of wonder how many approached it as such, abandoned it in frustration and never made it to the end.

To me, the open-ended nature of the entire film, that space for interpretation, is what makes Under the Skin interesting. Like The Thin Red Line, there’s not much dialogue here. It’s a mix of a few very abstract scenes and a quiet Johansson on a journey of self discovery. At first she prowls city streets of Scotland in her white van (the irony that it is the classic “rape van” should not be lost here), people watching, searching for men, alone. There is constant motion, a rhythm to ScarJo’s movements, the actions of a shark seeking prey. But at one point, she starts to realize there is little difference between her and her prey, which changes everything. She goes from the beast on the prowl to the animal in hiding, a shift in attitude that ends up costing her.

Or maybe not. I mean, that’s what I walked away from it with, but I’m pretty sure you could ask five other people who watched Under the Skin and get five different answers. That’s what Glazer has constructed here, what he wants, a unique experience driven by the viewer’s own thoughts and prejudices. It’s not dissimilar to what directors like Malick, Stanley Kubrick, etc., have achieved before him.

Under the Skin isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t designed to be. But for those willing to buy the ticket and take the ride, it’s worth it.

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5 reason to like ‘Narc’

Ray Liotta and Jason Patric bring their A games in the intense cop thriller 'Narc.'

Ray Liotta and Jason Patric bring their A games in the intense cop thriller ‘Narc.’

A pair of warnings: I’ll be using Narc language throughout this post, which means it’ll be a bit rougher than usual, and there are spoilers.

1) Joe fuckin’ Carnahan. Narc is the first film from Carnahan, who also directed Smokin’ Aces and is an executive producer on NBC’s Blacklist. It’s always troubling when directors keep re-making the same films. At first glimpse, that appears to be what Carnahan does from Narc to Smokin’ Aces, a pair of crime dramas. But that’s just the first glimpse. Smokin’ Aces is hilariously over-the-top, a mix of wild, Guy Ritchie-esque characters, a misleading story and bullets by the ton. Narc is the opposite: The bullets are sparse, the performances more realistic and the story much darker and even-tempoed. Smokin’ Aces is your high school graduation party blowout with loud music, louder party goers and a couple of kegs; Narc is the first time you invite your buddies over to hide behind the furnace in the basement and smoke a joint. It’s a tribute to Carnahan’s ability to craft a great story, as well as get the most out of his actors in any project.

2) Motherfuckin’ Detroit. I love it when a movie and its setting are so thoroughly entwined. The story of cops trying not to succumb to the hopelessness around them set in America’s dwindling automotive capital was a bold stroke. If there’s anything I’m most tired of in movies, it is stories set in Miami, LA and New York simply because they are Miami, LA and New York. They’ve been done to death. Narc doesn’t work like it does if it’s not set in Detroit, all blue and gray hues, crumbling neighborhoods and infrastructure, a very middle-American desire for simple justice when whether or not justice could be achieved in the most ideal situation is in doubt.

Be afraid. Be very, very fuckin' afraid.

Be afraid. Be very, very fuckin’ afraid.

3) Ray fuckin’ Liotta. I’d never say Liotta is an actor who can elevate an average production into a great production (see Revolver). He’s not that guy. But give him a good script and a director with vision, and Liotta is Michael fuckin’ Jordan (or, maybe to stick with the whole Detroit thing, Isiah fuckin’ Thomas). Liotta’s Henry Oak initially comes off like just another out-of-control cop who, after decades on the job, it’s starting to come apart at the seams. He’s almost a cliché. But as the story plays out, we start to realize what a passionate, loving guys Oaks is, how that drives him, how it’s the singular greatest thing about his character … and that it may end up being his downfall. Liotta is masterful, never over-playing his hand or revealing his end game, veering back and forth emotionally but never over-emoting. It’s awesome to behold.

Undercover narcotics is now place for the weak when even the strong can barely survive.

Undercover narcotics is no place for the weak when even the strong can barely survive.

4) Jason fuckin’ Patric. Every time I see this guy, he’s on. Every. Single. Time. But I don’t see Patric in many things, which makes little sense to me. Here, as a cop trying to find justice for a murdered narcotics agent, Patric is sublime. His emotional control is amazing – particularly in the scenes with his baby and wife, played ably by Krista Bridges – and when his Nick Tellis and Liotta’s Henry Oak finally have it out, it’s acting nirvana.

5) Let’s hear it for the fuckin’ ladies. Narc fails the Bechdel test, big time. But this isn’t a Michael Mann or Martin Scorcese film, where the women on-screen are generally of little importance and poorly thought out as characters. On the contrary, the relationships between our two main characters, Nick and Henry, and the women around them drive this story. Nick’s fairly newly married with a son when he returns to undercover work, and it does not make his wife happy. Henry idolizes his wife, who passed due to cancer years before. And the marriage of the murdered cop, Michael Calvess, and his wife, Kathryn, is central to the movie. The women aren’t shown much, but their shadows darken the entire proceedings. Carnahan also deserves credit for his direction, particularly during the disintegration of Nick’s marriage. At first, Nick and his wife are a very physical couple, touchy-feely for lack of a better term. As the movie progresses and marriage degrades, the physical distance, that lack of touching, plays out subtlety and effectively, mirroring the downward spiral of their relationship.

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Where ‘High Tension’ fails, ‘Silent House’ succeeds

Elizabeth Olsen rawks as Sarah, a young woman stuck in the middle of a murderous night at a remote vacation house.

Elizabeth Olsen rawks as Sarah, a young woman stuck in the middle of a murderous night at a remote vacation house.

I’m a fan of the French horror flick High Tension from director Alejandre Aja (The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D, Horns). “Tension” is the key word. Aja keeps it ratcheted up to the max once the home invasion begins, driving relentlessly toward one of the most over-the-top endings in horror. The film is a hoot and a half.

(Tons of spoilers ahead. You were warned.)

The problem? High Tension doesn’t make a goddamn bit of sense. The ending is great, a swirling mix of screams, blood, machinery and incredible intensity. But once the reveal hits in the ending – that our heroine, Marie, is really the madwoman behind all of this death and destruction – it’s easy to start replaying the film in your head and tearing apart the entire course of events.

The key to surviving an attack by a "High Tension"-style maniac killer? Don't lose your head, for starters.

The key to surviving an attack by a “High Tension”-style maniac killer? Don’t lose your head, for starters.

To Aja’s credit, it really doesn’t hurt the film. High Tension is a nail-biter the whole way through, and he ends it quickly before you realize just how it unravels all that came before it. It’s the rare film that pulls the rug out from underneath you, and you don’t end up minding it. But that same quality also keeps it from being a great film, an elite horror classic, because it doesn’t survive multiple viewings unscathed. The visceral impact of High Tension only works on the first watch, and great films live up to repeated scrutiny.

Silent House doesn’t have quite the build-up High Tension does, but it delivers in the end. Sarah, a college-age young woman, is out in the sticks with her dad and uncle, fixing up the family summer place in an attempt to sell it. But all is not as it appears, and soon, Sarah is ducking, dodging and running for her life, trying to save herself – as well as her dad and uncle – from a merciless killer.

Like High Tension, we come to the realization that our heroine is our killer. Unlike High Tension, directors Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (who wrote the screenplay based on a Spanish film) drop subtle clues as to the identity of our killer and her motives in the lead up to the reveal and tightly control the action to make it believable. Also unlike High Tension, it makes sense in the end. There’s nothing that happens in the house that can’t be attributed to Sarah once we find out she’s dissociated/had a psychotic break and is out for revenge for the childhood molestation engineered by her father, aided by her weak uncle. There are no gaps, no impossibilities, no reaches. It’s a slick piece of film making, and another outstanding performance by star Elizabeth Olsen (see also Martha Marcy May Marlene, which should have seen Olsen nominated for an Academy Award), who shines as the camera follows her through the entire endeavor.

I’m looking forward to seeing this again, seeking more clues that the filmmakers carefully crafted into the film. I have a feeling Silent House will be just as rewarding the second time around.

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Why ’47 Ronin’ is worth it

Let's get weird, shall we?

Let’s get weird, shall we?

I hate it when Hollywood chickens out on the ending.

Yes, Steven Spielberg, I’m looking at you. When I watched War of the Worlds for the first time, I was thrilled. It was the most fun I had watching a Spielberg flick since Jurassic Park. Yeah, it dragged a bit in crazy Tim Robbins’ basement, but still, it was mostly Tom Cruise, action sci-fi magic.

Until the end. You know, when the dead son magically reappeared for the big, warm, huggy family reunion. Because despite the evidence showing that all human life that was on the wrong side of the ridge when the aliens lit them up was incinerated to dust, Tom Cruise’s boy survived. Yippee.

I was miffed at best. I’ve pretty much refused to watch Spielberg since. It was just so galling, to undercut the tragedy of that moment and the degree to which it fueled Cruise’s character to work that much harder to save his daughter and himself.

(Spoilers ahead. You were warned.)

I thought that’s what director Carl Rinsch was pulling in 47 Ronin, as well. For acting against orders, the shogun demands the ritual suicides of the ronin. As they begin the ceremony and are about to disembowel themselves, the shogun halts the proceedings.

“Oh great. They’re going to $#@!& this up.”

But Rinsch didn’t. The shogun refused to end the bloodline of the chief ronin, allowing his son to be spared. Then, the ceremony resumed and the remaining ronin kill themselves.

Yes, it’s a tragic ending. But it’s true to the story. The ronin knew if they survived the attempt to free their lord’s daughter and avenge his death that their reward would be execution. That was the hill they had to climb. And they did so willingly and with honor.

If you’re looking for an Oscar winner, you’re in the wrong place. This movie has lots of genre-bending, supernatural, ass-kicking fun. It also has its faults. 47 Ronin attempts to do a little bit too much, there are some pacing issues and it’s probably too long. That said, it’s the best Keanu Reeves performance since The Matrix, and the movie as a whole stays enjoyably true to the kung fu and samurai film traditions from the far east.

And the ending brings it full circle, rewarding and, perhaps more importantly, respecting its viewers.

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‘Point Blank’ an uneven entry in Boorman’s portfolio

If you're going to steal Lee Marvin's money and leave him for dead, you better make damn sure you finish the job.

If you’re going to steal Lee Marvin’s money and leave him for dead, you better make damn sure you finish the job.

Maybe it’s just me, but I think director John Boorman’s overrated.

Deliverance is OK, but people only really remember it for the one intense scene in the woods that made Ned Beatty famous. The problem is that intense scene happens early, and the rest of the movie – a trip through the back country in the south while living in fear of being killed by rednecks – fails to match that intensity, until it just sort of sputters to an end. The Tailor of Panama is solid, but its success really hinges more on the quality performances of stars Geoffrey Rush, Pierce Brosnan and Jamie Lee Curtis and John Le Carre’s story than it does Boorman’s direction. Excalibur has its moments, but it now feels dated, not so much because of its Arthurian storyline than the cheesy 1980s-ness that overwhelms the production. And Zardoz … sweet Jesus, I don’t have the time or the inclination to tear into the hot mess. I hope Sir Sean Connery collected a big, fat check for that, because otherwise he was wasting his time.

Point Blank is another example of Boorman coming up short. The film stars Lee Marvin as Walker, a guy who partners with his girlfriend and a pal to steal some illegal funds, then is double-crossed, shot and left for dead. But Walker doesn’t die. And he wants his $60,000. And he doesn’t much care which lowlife gives it to him, either.

Marvin is terrific, all stony rage and clear-headed vengeance. Angie Dickinson is gorgeous and grave as Chris, the sister of Walker’s now-dead ex. Carroll O’Conner does a nice supporting turn as one of the criminals Walker confronts in an attempt to get his cash. There are also a lot of amazing, late-1960s settings and cars that really give the film a unique look.

But it’s not a great film by any means. In this case, the script doesn’t help Boorman much. It’s old-school, low-brow sexist, in one case putting Chris in the uncomfortable position of getting naked with a crime boss and trying to delay any further advances until Walker shows up to save her just before penetration can occur. And there is one sequence where Walker and Chris wait at the home of a criminal for him to return that is just ridiculous, making no sense whatsoever. Behind the camera, Boorman relies on a series of repetitive, quick-cut flashbacks throughout. He seems to be attempting to note the fatalism of it all, that this violence is a cycle which will only lead to more violence. Or maybe history repeats itself. Or karma something. None of which are bad ideas in and of themselves, but it’s vague and clumsy in a way that undercuts Point Blank as a total package.

Maybe I’m too harsh, but sometimes in Hollywood a reputation is earned at one point and continues to exist without being challenged, despite evidence that is contrary to said reputation. I think Boorman looks like someone who falls under that heading.

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‘Mother’ has touches of David Lynch

What would this mild-mannered woman do to save her son?

What would this mild-mannered woman do to save her son?

I’ve said before that Joon-Ho Bong’s The Host is probably the second-best creature flick I’ve ever seen, trailing only Jaws. I’ve also previously expressed my affection for Bong’s Snowpiercer, a nice piece of sci-fi cinema.

But somehow I’d missed what might be Bong’s finest work so far, 2009’s Mother. The movie opens with titular mother, played magnificently by Hye-ja Kim (pictured above), standing in a field of wheat, dancing dreamily and emotionless, no one around to witness this except the viewers.

Upon seeing this, I immediately thought of Twin Peaks, the soon-to-be revived serial soap co-created by cinematic super-freak David Lynch. Whether it’s Audrey dancing by herself in the Double R or Leland crying and pleading for someone to be his partner at the bar of the Great Northern, Twin Peaks is my screen reference for all things related to weird dancing. Between the music and Kim’s movements, it seemed like it could have been pulled straight from the show.

As Mother unfolded, it continued to remind me a lot of Twin Peaks and what is probably regarded as Lynch’s greatest cinematic achievement, Blue Velvet. Both of Lynch’s creations deal with smashing the American, small-town mythos. America’s small towns are really not what Leave It to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show would have you believe. Yes, the serene, exterior perfection isn’t hard to find in the burgs and hamlets of the good ol’ U, S of A. But what lies underneath that facade is shadowy and disturbing, made more so because those who live there do their best to keep up the front and ignore the darkness.

Mother has a lot of that, the exposure of hidden sins in what happens to be a near-perfect place to live. Everyone knows everyone, the murder rate is nearly non-existent, eccentrics can be left to their own devices, even flourish in their own way. But as mother tries to clear her son of the murder he has been accused of, we see the classism, the small-town snark, corruption, bullying, underage prostitution, all of this which everyone seems to know is happening but refuses to confront in any meaningful way. Even those who appear to be innocents, as the tale unfolds, we find those people to be just as bad or worse than those in power.

The Host and Snowpiercer are flashier and more accessible, particularly for western audiences. But Mother is a work of great nuance and substance, signifying the work of someone who has greater depths to delve into. I can’t wait to see where Bong take audiences next.

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‘Five Armies’ all of what was right, wrong with ‘Hobbit,’ ‘LOTR’

The battles of large armies will never look the same again after the 'Lord of the Rings' and 'Hobbit' movies.

The battles of large armies will never look the same again after the ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Hobbit’ movies.

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies was satisfying and frustrating, a perfect wrap-up to an imperfect sextet.

The Lord of the Rings/Hobbit saga was a huge undertaking, the likes of which may only end up rivaled by James Cameron’s Avatar series. Peter Jackson and pals took what might be the most intricate, heavily studied classic geek literature in history and translated it faithfully and beautifully to the screen. I don’t think that accomplishment should be underestimated.

Jackson also re-defined how large-scale battles will be waged on-screen. From Helm’s Deep to the final clang of iron in Battle of the Five Armies, large swaths of troops clashing has never been done so intricately, so dynamically. Movie fans will benefit from that down the road in other films, as well.

The problem, however, is that “epic” sometimes just means “long.” And all six of those films suffer from bloat. Some of that is understandable, with Jackson hewing as close to the books as possible, trying to reward fans of the books. Some of it was just hubris, with the filmmakers knowing full well they could make those films as long as they wanted and just rake in the cash and awards.

But that shouldn’t undercut what Jackson accomplished here. I tip my hat, and look forward to what he offers up next.

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