Under The Skin

I recently caught up with last year’s Under the Skin – it was heralded by many critics as one of the best films of the year, revolutionary, changing Scarlett Johansson’s role in cinema and science fiction. It’s the story of an alien in human guise (Scarlett Johansson), who drives around Glasgow in a white transit van, preying on young men by enticing them with the suggestion of sex before disposing of them, in a mystery house with magical qualities. Nothing is explained, there’s little dialogue, and what is really going on is never made clear.

Director Jonathan Glazer uses an almost guerrilla style of film making, with the scenes in which Johansson’s character drives around looking for her victims having a documentary like quality. In fact many of the ordinary people shown weren’t aware they were a part of the film until afterwards – perhaps a rather sad comment on lonely young men in Glasgow. It’s a piece of cinema that feels like an experience; storytelling is not what is key here – instead, the unnerving score from Mica Levi and the odd direction from Glazer combine to make something which feels more like an incredibly claustrophobic piece of art. Despite Johansson’s character being an alien it is her world view we share, as, thanks to Glazer’s careful direction, we see the world from an outside perspective, normal conversations and scenes unfolding before both us and this alien, that are unavoidably human.

This is certainly not a film that panders to its audience, and much is left unexplained and ambiguous. Whilst this is admirable and clearly key to the general feel of the film I’m not sure it’s a trait that’s enjoyable to watch. It’s unsettling, and made my skin crawl, surely the point, proving the effectiveness of the film. There are moments so raw that they are almost tender, and the vulnerability glows off the screen until you feel it within yourself as well.

The depiction of women in the film is interesting – arguably Johansson’s character is using the benefit of her beauty to control men, given tools of power in her looks. But still it feels exploitative and she continues to be controlled by men from afar, and is still in the position of a submissive woman in society. I think this is partly the point Glazer is attempting to make, and it is certainly one he does well.

At times it feels like an alien look at the world and yet it also feels like an intimate look at humanity. It’s intense and certainly gets under the skin – of those performing, of those creating and certainly of those watching.

Ex Machina

Directed by novelist and screen writer Alex Garland, Ex Machina raises questions about life, the rise of technology and what playing God can do to you. After Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) wins a staff lottery he gets the chance to spend the week in the company of his boss and expert hacker Nathan (Oscar Isaac), where he becomes part of an experiment. The pair attempt to test Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot with artificial intelligence created by Nathan, through conversation, to see if she can pass for human. However who exactly is being tested soon becomes unclear, and throughout the film we see how the rise of artificial intelligence calls into question more about humanity itself.

This is a tense clever and incredibly close sci-fi thriller, where all of the action comes from the ethical issues raised, and the mood created by Garland’s stylish direction. Despite it being his debut, Garland doesn’t hold back, and it seems his years of scriptwriting allow him to understand the importance of the intricate relationship between screenplay and direction, of style and substance, something he balances perfectly throughout. The score perfectly plays on the increasingly creepy nature of the film as more about Nathan’s experiments are revealed, and we become more and more unsure about who to trust.

Vikander’s performance is a wonderful one, and although she’s technically playing the least human character of all, it is her who seems to display the most compassionately human characteristics of all. There is something very simple and beautiful about the scene in which she dresses herself, covering her intricate mechanical workings and mesh that make up her robot figure with a pretty dress and cardigan, until she looks almost completely human. Juxtaposed with Caleb’s confusion about his attraction to her and the strange jealousy emanating from Nathan about this, Garland manages to take pedestrian actions and explode them into something which asks all sorts of questions about what it means to be human.

Isaac is terrifyingly creepy as the genius who has a lot of personal issues but always keeps us on our toes, switching from chatty and engaging to a drunken angry mess in seconds. With a cast of essentially only three, the relationships and the dialogue are what make this film a great one, taking twists and turns constantly unexpected, with the audience never sure who to trust, just as good sci-fi should be.

As well as this, Garland’s script is not afraid to be funny, to laugh at the ludicrous situation it is showing us, with millionaires and robots and big fields and helicopters and luxurious wealth. And despite raising interesting questions, it never attempts to make a moral judgement.

For a directorial debut this is simply stunning, and the cast are all as excellent as each other. It’s creepy, intimate, and hugely enjoyable.

Taken 3

The third installment in the franchise which made Liam Neeson an action star and ‘particular set of skills’ a much loved phrase worldwide, Taken 3 returns to the life of Brian Mills (Neeson) and family. This time however, it is Brian who must take himself, when his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) is murdered and he is the prime suspect. He goes into hiding and attempts to beat the police to find out who is responsible for the murder of the woman he loves and clear his name.

When it gets to the third instalment of this franchise you begin to wonder what else can go wrong in this family’s lives. Apparently, the answer is a third film. With a loose script that is just simply quite boring, and action sequences cut to get a 12A rating and therefore the biggest audience possible, there’s not much going for this film. Neeson’s desperation at his ex-wife’s death and his moments of fatherly compassion are cringe inducing, and although his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) has improved on her performance since the first film, Neeson’s seems to have worsened.

The poor action sequences and the inconsistently written characters all mean that when watching, you simply don’t care. I didn’t care if Brian got locked up, or his ex-wife died, or someone else is behind the murder. The poor script means that it’s not a mystery I’m interested in seeing solved. Forest Whittaker gives a pretty average performance as another underwritten character, a police detective with a penchant for fiddling with various random things whilst he thinks, from elastic bands to chess pieces.

Co writer Luc Besson is known for helming the Cinéma du Look movement, where style presides over substance. But in Taken 3, neither of these things are present. The shaky hand held camera used in any action sequences made me feel nauseous and the performances leave a lot to be desired. Cinema can be many magical things, but Taken 3 only reinforces the sad reality that first and foremost for some it is a money making machine.

Taken 3? Take it away from me please.

Foxcatcher

Heir to his family’s fortune John Du Pont (Steve Carrell) wants to use the ample money he has to create an environment where wrestlers, the stars of the sport he loves so much, can come and train. He secures Olympic gold medal winning Mike Shultz (Channing Tatum) as head trainer for the program he hopes will one day become the training ground for the Olympic wrestling team. Shultz leaves his training with his brother Dave (Ruffalo), and enters into a strangely intense friendship with the man who describes himself as his mentor and father figure, but who himself yearns for the approval of his distant mother (Vanessa Redgrave).

Director Bennett Miller is renowned for drawing career defining performances out of actors, from Jonah Hill in Moneyball to Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote. And indeed, it is the performances in Foxcatcher which seem to be gaining the most significant attention. Mark Ruffalo has long demonstrated he gives a good performance in everthing he is in, and Channing Tatum’s move away from romantic comedies to more serious character pieces (and also straight comedy as 21 Jump Street Showed) has in recent years made him an interesting casting choice, and this is certainly no end to that.

Carrell’s performance in Foxcatcher is a transformation. Inevitably when portraying someone that really existed and was in the public eye there is a sense of duty to capture a more personal element of them. Carrell is hardly recognisable in his dark portrayal of John Du Pont. Through prosthetics, make up, different skin tone, different face shape, Carrell not only looks the part but his entire demeanour is very different to that of the actor that many will recognise from Judd Apatow comedies and the US office. His entire way of holding himself, his entire celebrity identity disappears, no mean feat with a star of Carrell’s standing.

This is a film of immersive performances, something which only adds to the strange intensity which runs through its veins. The unsettling relationship between Mike Shultz and Du Pont is never overstated, never made explicit, but we still feel as though we are intruding on something incredibly intimate, almost to the point that you feel as though you want to leave the room, and leave them to it.  It’s a strange relationship to view in terms of wrestling, a sport not only viewed as very manly but which relies a lot on body contact. The film has an oddly muted feel. Everything is quiet, unsettling. You sense throughout that something is a bit off, but something unexplainable.

And although we are privy to the innermost aspects of Shultz and Du Pont, their character and their friendship, neither of them are people you necessarily want to spend time with. The most likable character is Mike’s brother Dave, whose care and devotion for his brother is, despite all the pent up emotion, the most heart-breaking part of the film.

I didn’t know anything about these real life events, or wrestling prior to seeing the film. Although, for me, this made following some of the wrestling matches a bit hard to follow, unsure who was winning when and what the rules are, I knew I had to take to care to stay out the way of spoilers. My top tip is you do the same.

The Theory of Everything

Following the story of acclaimed physicist Stephen Hawking from his days at Cambridge to the height of his fame, through his marriage and illness, The Theory of Everything stars Eddie Redmayne as Hawking, and Felicity Jones as his wife Jane.

It seems there is no end to the mileage that can be gotten out of Stephen Hawking’s life story. From the BBC drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch to numerous documentaries (including the one I wrote about previously here), he is a source of endless fascination to the British public. So what does this new film have to offer that the others don’t?

It’s an interesting look at a story that many Brits will know well – instead of focusing on Hawking’s scientific discoveries The Theory of Everything looks at everything Hawking achieved through the spectrum of marriage and from the perspective of his first wife, who fell in love with him during their time at university. It examines the struggle of the day to day life of living with someone with an illness – however, the film doesn’t quite brave sticking to this kind of narrative enough, which would have made the film a bit more interesting.

Redmayne’s performance is impeccable, and his embodying of disability as well as the essence of Hawking’s character is astonishing. Jones’s performance however is equally as good, and I hope that she isn’t overlooked when seen alongside Redmayne. At times it seems as though the performances are better than the film itself.

The narrative of the film follows so much of Hawking’s life, and tries to fit in so many aspects of Stephen and Jane’s time together that at times it can feel too sprawling – perhaps honing in on the development of the disease and the effect on romance would have been more poignant. There’s only so much that can be said of a life in one film, and I’m not sure this film quite managed to work out what it was trying to do.

A rose tinted view of a story that will warm the hearts of many, The Theory of Everything needs to do a bit more work on the sums behind its theory.