Monday, April 21, 2014

Review: Under the Skin

by Adam Riske
I get pumped when I see something as good as Under the Skin. I love this movie!

F-Heads, have you heard about a new distributor named A24? If you haven’t, you should. They get me. They are my Marvel. After a consecutive run that includes Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, The Spectacular Now, Enemy and now Under the Skin, I’m starting to believe they are a beacon of quality in indie cinema. Their output is daring, provocative, interesting and entertaining, but maybe more importantly not Oscar-baiting or pretentious. They are making some of the best director’s and actor’s movies since Miramax in the '90s. Keep up the good work, A24!*

Writer-Director Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is A24’s best since Spring Breakers. It is about as good a Stanley Kubrick movie that someone other than Stanley Kubrick could probably make. It’s as if Kubrick was handed the script to Species, kept about 20 pages and then came up with the rest himself. Throw in an often-nude Scarlett Johansson (spoiler: she looks good) and you have a new cult classic.
The influence of Kubrick is all over this movie – trippy, out-of-place imagery (2001: A Space Odyssey), subversive commentary (A Clockwork Orange), a shrieking and unnerving score (The Shining) and, like in all of the director’s work, a cold and clinical take on human nature that somehow supersedes that trapping and is sensitive and empathetic at the same time. The experience of watching this movie approximates when you’re listening to a late '70s/early '80s Pink Floyd album. Under the Skin has a musicality to it; the imagery and sound design wash over you and have more impact as a composition than a narrative. The alien played by Scarlett Johansson has a malevolent motivation and a heavily cynical, predatory take on man, but by the end I ended up truly caring about her/it. That’s great filmmaking.

The plot in brief: an alien takes the form of a beautiful woman (Scarlett Johansson) and stalks the roads of Scotland looking for isolated, unattached men to lure them into a type of extraterrestrial trap (which, in the best reveal of the year so far, is truly terrifying once you see what it is). While on the job, the alien grows more human, which leads to results both rewarding and dire.

This is probably the best Scarlet Johansson has ever been in a movie. I have usually been a fan of hers because she’s beautiful, has great taste in material “and JEWISH!” (Sorry, my mom interrupted). She makes all the Bar-Mitzvah boys go “doo do doo do doo do do doo…” is what I’m saying. Her adult career started out great with Ghost World and Lost in Translation, but she soon seemed over her head in some of her other movies with older co-stars such as Match Point or The Prestige. Since 2011, she appears to be in her wheelhouse and more comfortable and ingratiating on screen. I’ve noticed I’ve been drawn to her personality more recently than I have before in movies including We Bought a Zoo, Don Jon and even fucking Hitchcock (where she is the only good thing). She’s having an especially strong 2014 with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (where she gives a fun, charismatic movie-star performance) and now Under the Skin, which is distinct from any of her previous work.
Since Johansson is playing an alien in the movie, she sparsely uses dialogue. This is the first time I noticed how well she holds the screen just with her image, expressive features and body language alone. Combining that with her all-voice performance in Her (a movie I don’t love but seem to want to watch every day), and it’s hard to deny how talented of an actress she is.

I commonly complain that not enough movies are about something. This is why I love a movie like Under the Skin, which has a bounty of themes. In a way, the movie is about a person on a work trip doing their job, spending their spare time and also playing hooky for a little while. This is a lonely movie led by a single performance but expresses some interesting ideas about altruism (the alien is cold at the beginning but eventually grows more compassionate), delusion (the alien tries to eat human food, have sex etc.) and the variety of different relationships that can be had between men and women (sexual, romantic, friendly, motherly). To the movie’s credit, everything is touched on but you never feel beaten over the head as if you’re watching an "important" movie. It’s stylish but unfussy.

The most interesting theme the movie delves into has to do with gender -- in particular, how it feels to be a beautiful, single (meaning off-on-your-own; not relationship status) woman who is preyed upon by men. For as much as the alien is hunting the men walking the roads of Scotland, man is stalking this woman because she resembles a woman and not an alien. It also does a good job of putting you in the shoes of the debilitating and mortifying catatonic state that sexual assault can trigger. Don’t let that last sentence scare you off of the movie, though. Just wanted to give it credit for being able to put a guy in a woman’s shoes when it comes to sexual proposition. It can be scary. It’s weird because by the end of the movie I understood women better and this was from a movie about an alien! Maybe the point is that men sometimes view women almost as aliens instead of as people? I don’t know, but I’ll take it. Fucking Transcendence doesn’t make you think about shit except how bad it is. Movies, when they’re good genre pieces such as Under the Skin, can change the way you think and feel. This is great Science Fiction.
Before I knew it, 2014 has become the best start to the year in movies that I can remember and Under the Skin is a prime example. It’s thematically rich. I love that the movie is challenging and scary but not punishing (which it could have easily been) and that it ends in a truly crazy place you would have never expected. Kudos to Glazer for being mindful of how long to hold certain scenes/shots for maximum effect without getting masochistic. He’s a talented and intelligent filmmaker and I’m eager to seek out his other work now (Sexy Beast, Birth, many music videos). Also worth mentioning is composer Mica Levi for her incredible violin-heavy score (her first) and the teams responsible for the terrific sound design and alien makeup effects.

Go see Under the Skin. It’s better than Draft Day.

*Note: Before Under the Skin, there was a trailer for the upcoming Tom Hardy movie called Locke, which is also from A24. It has some of the most hilarious critics’ quotes ever: “The kind of film that restores your faith in the power of both acting and storytelling,” which is like “ok, settle down, guys.” Then “...Defies our notion of what’s cinematic,” which is only slightly less hyperbolic. Next is an old favorite: “Tom Hardy is a one man tour-de-force.” But my absolute favorite quote (maybe ever) is the last one: "Reverberates with the power of universal themes." LOL. OMG. ROTFFL. IDK. OMG. LOL. Your mom reverberates with the power of universal themes. Please set your phone on reverberate with the power of universal themes setting. Do they mean like the Jurassic Park theme maybe? That’s a Universal theme. Does Locke reverberate as hardcore parkour as that? Now, I have to see Locke. After I eat a bagel so I can make my day all bagels and Locke. Oh! The two Jewish guys reading this got that at least, right?

27 comments:

  1. From what I've heard about Locke, the entire movie is literally nothing but Tom Hardy in a car so I think the quote about how it "defies our notion of what's cinematic" probably truly applies...the rest of those struck me as hyperbolic hysteria when I saw the trailer, too.

    You've got me very intrigued about Under the Skin, I hope I get a chance to see it soon. I also want to point out that what you said about Her (specifically "a movie I don't love but seem to want to watch every day") is such a perfect encapsulation of the way I've felt about movies that I've grown to love. They linger on your mind and burrow their way into your brain and/or heart until you're taken by surprise by the fact that they just live there now. I love that feeling.

    Also, a bagels and Locke joke during Passover? That's just mean, man.

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    1. That's why I don't fast - because it makes you furious.

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  2. I want to see this...for the story...yeah, that's it...

    Seriously, though, the concept sounds great and original, and I love good Sci-fi, especially when it has some ideas on its mind. This has shot up on my "see it" list.

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  3. Thanks Adam - I needed your review of this to get me back on board (though I saw a certain screencap yesterday that helped - wawawooie!) after hearing Devin Faraci give a rather tepid review on another podcast (we're just friends, I swear) calling it a pure "festival film" that doesn't do anything special and noting that some people actually walked out, presumably from boredom. As much as I dislike him personally I do value his thoughts on movies, but I value yours much more!

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    1. Thanks Sol! Devin Faraci said Pacific Rim was the next Star Wars so I tend to take what he says with a grain of salt. He's a very good writer, though.

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    2. Pfff - yeah, not quite. He also called me a cocksucker on Twitter once and he got that wrong too. But yeah, his stuff's pretty good.

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    3. Wait....he got that wrong? That's it, Sol, you're uninvited to my slumber party. I also think you should take "cocksucker" off of your resume and business cards, that's just plain false advertising.

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    4. That's the only reason you invited me to your slumber party? I'm hurt. But fine, point taken re the business cards - my resume on the other hand needs all the help it can get.

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    5. You're not a cock sucker. A sock cucker, sure. But you're our sock cucker.

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    6. I make a game of it - see how many socks I can cuck in an hour, then try to break that record.

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  4. I can't wait to see Under the Skin. Along with the Raid 2 it is by far the movie I have been looking forward to the most. There is such a dearth of good sci-fi, but my expectations for this are incredibly high. I was worried that I wouldn't get a chance to see it in theaters, but it just opened at an independent theater down the street from me, so I guess it's a sign that I need to see this movie.

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    1. Raid 2 and Under the Skin are two of my favorites this year so far. Let me know what you think after you see it. I'm curious to others opinions on Under the Skin. It's such an interesting movie.

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    2. I can say a bit more about what I thought here than on Twitter. I just got back from seeing it. One word that describes the experience is chilling. It was one of the few movies that left me with a feeling of dread throughout, especially after seeing what lies in store for the men. Like any great story, it has sparked a whirlpool of thoughts and feelings. A part of me is glad that it is rare to find a movie that is this effective because I feel emotionally and intellectually exhausted (in a good way) after seeing it.

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    3. Yup. A strength of the movie is how it doesn't put you at much distance as a viewer. It's very involving.

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  5. I saw Under the Skin the week it came out and it hasn't left my mind since. Here's hoping a podcast is in order to discuss its merits even more.

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    1. I thought my review was comprehensive :-( Oh well. I'm gonna go see if there's a fast car to walk into.

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    2. My apologies, I didn't mean to come off as that internet troll dick. Your review was indeed comprehensive and I'm glad someone shares the same enthusiasm for thought-provoking sci-fi.

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    3. It's all good. I was really just joking around.

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  6. I just saw it tonight and absolutely loved it! I couldn't agree more with everything you said. That trap scene was something else! My favorite of the year.

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  7. It's called "Keeping it Alien." I'd post it but I'm on my phone and I don't think I can. It's 22 minutes long but very insightful into his process on the film.

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  8. Adam, I had been holding off on reading your review until I saw this as I wanted to go into it blind, so I’m just now getting to it. Wow, what a movie and what a great review. I think what you said about the movie touching on a variety of different subjects, but not beating you over the head really sums up why this movie is great. In an age of so many forgettable movies Under the Skin has to be commended for being unique. Also, holy shnikeys this movie is pure nightmare-fuel! What a harrowing experience. Best movie I’ve seen so far this year (although Expendables 3 is only a week away!).

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  9. Under the Skin manages to fulfill the promise of its prologue, burrowing under the viewer's skin without pretense, or the benefit of Laura's bedside manner.

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