Saturday, May 03, 2014

The Current Cinema 14.2

Under the Skin

Filmmaker Jonathan Glazer only holds three credits to his name, but each one is a fiercely focused, genre-bending surprise. His latest film, “Under the Skin”, is just as polarizing. Starring Scarlett Johansson, “Under the Skin” is a minimalist science fiction thriller that could pass as an experimental avant garde film if one walked into it during the middle. Rapt attention is needed as Glazer plays with all sorts of nerve-inducing, shrill soundtrack cues and a perfectly realized mise-en-scene. Just watch as, in one brilliant scene, a red blinking tail light emanates just the right amount of light onto the obscured face of a passer-bye outside the van that Johansson spends a majority of her time driving. We know something isn’t quite right with the man, and the red tail light adds succinct mystery. Technical proficiency aside, “Under the Skin” also registers high with its narrative… oblique as it is. Johansson is some sort of alien being wandering the frigid wastelands of Scotland in a white van, picking up men and then leading them to a dark room where they mindlessly walk into a black ooze. Her only other interaction is with a motorcycle riding “handler” who supports her along the way, then becomes her hunter when things go awry. Not reading the novel the film is based on- though initial reviews describe the film as a complete “paring” of the novel- the force of “Under the Skin” is its complete tone and mood. This thing is entrancing from the beginning, and it only grows its spell as the narrative takes a few science fiction twists, namely the alien’s desire to be human. While “Under the Skin” may puzzle some, its downright adventurous attitude and brave refusal to play anything by the rules is breathtaking.

Only Lovers Left Alive

It’s becoming harder and harder to re-invent any genre, much less the vampire one. Indie director Jim Jarmusch has thrown his hat into the ring with “Only Lovers Left Alive”, a meditative, Velvet Underground type of film where the vampires look like aging punk rockers and the main attraction seems to be so Jarmusch and his crew can stone out to various obscure pop and soul tunes. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) are the star-crossed centuries old lovers, feeding their habit not through violent bloodshed, but through the kindness of strangers and the local pharmacy or hospital. When Eve, living in Tangiers, can’t stand being away from her lover any more, she travels to him and they have to deal with pretty ordinary obstacles in life such as groupies (since Hiddleston is some type of obscure, underground artist) and the immature antics of Eve’s sister (Mia Waskowski) in from L.A. “Only Lovers Left Alive” fits perfectly into the deadpan Jarmusch canon, and if that’s your thing, then you will be pleased. I just wanted more from the effort. The strongest point of the ambling narrative is heightened due to its partial placement in Detroit… a landscape that adds tremendous mystery through Jarmusch’s nocturnal lateral pans through the shelled out city. They represent something scary, beautiful and sad at the same time. If only I felt this, or really anything, for the characters enduring this hardboiled scenery.


The opening of Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” finds a battered woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainesbourg) lying unconscious in an alleyway. Before we see her, his camera surveys the various awnings, openings and corners of the dank alley in much the same manner in which the film spends the next 4 hours analyzing this woman’s life long sexual appetite. This all sounds amorous, but its really not in the hands of von Trier, a filmmaker who constantly digresses and annihilates the subject into a methodical and even mythological survey of a woman’s general unhappiness. “Nymphomaniac” is also very humorous at times, flashing mathematical drawings over the screen as the woman tells her stories to the old man (Stellan Skarsgaard) who found her in the alley or comparing her sexual exploits to a piano overture. As the younger self told in flashback, Stacy Martin is especially good in a role that requires much more depth and bravery than that of Gainesbourg. One scene, in particular, involving a wife (Uma Thurman) confronting Joe and her unfaithful husband with kids in-tow is distinctly von Trier…. The anger of the world coming home to roost in nervy jump cuts. “Nympomaniac” does shock in its explicit content, yet there’s more than that salacious attitude in the more human moments of the film, especially in the second half as Joe struggles to understand and tame her addictions. Early provocative rumors aside, “Nymphomaniac” succeeds as an intelligent and engrossing character study of a damaged woman…. One that fits neatly into the canon of female von Trier analysis.

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