Under the Skin(4/12/2014)

Every Oscar season brings its share of annoyances and the 2013 award season was no exception.  I was annoyed by people who seem to have thought that 12 Years a Slave directed itself, by people who didn’t seem to understand that The Wolf of Wall Street could show horrible people without actively endorsing their behavior, and I was annoyed by all the people who couldn’t recognize the obvious brilliance of Inside Llewyn Davis.  However, nothing bugged me quite as much as the frequent mislabeling of the movie Gravity as a science fiction film.  There was a true science fiction film in that awards race, and it wasn’t Gravity, it was Her; a film set on a recognizable earth and mostly devoid of large special effects.  I had my problems with that movie but it did strike me as a bit odd that it wasn’t the film being given the credit for being the science fiction breakthrough of 2013 while a movie that uses entirely contemporary technology was.  Blame it on Star Wars and Star Trek if you must, but for whatever reason large portions of the general public seem to think that science fiction is something that begins and ends in outer space, which it doesn’t.  Now in 2014 we’ve got another science fiction film (albeit one with elements of horror) called Under the Skin which doesn’t necessarily conform to people’s basic expectations of the genre.

Under the Skin is a difficult film to summarize because it has an unconventional structure and it very deliberately avoids revealing itself upfront.  I guess the film’s one sentence log line is that it’s about an unnamed alien (Scarlett Johansson) disguised as a voluptuous woman who uses her beauty to lure men into her lair in order to trap them like flies in a spider-web.  I don’t want to discuss the plot too much further, but I will say that the story is very oblique and that there’s a pretty substantial change of pace at about the halfway point.

Usually when people accuse a film of being “like a music video” they’re referring to the style of fast paced cutting and slick cinematography that crept into cinema after the advent of MTV.  There are, however, many different kinds of music videos and for a brief period in the late 90s and early 2000s they became a legitimate platform for adventurous (if sometimes rather pretentious) filmmaking, and it was during this era that director Jonathan Glazer made his mark on the medium by making a number of really interesting videos for bands like Radiohead and Massive Attack.  Like most videos, these were high concept affairs but ones that had a real sense of mystery to them.  My favorite of them was the video for a song called “”Rabbit in Your Headlights” which shows a strange homeless guy with torrettes trying to walk through a tunnel and getting hit by slow moving cars, and right when you’re about to say “what the hell is this” it hits you with an image at the end that sends shivers down your spine even though you have no idea what it’s really supposed to mean.

Glazer’s first film Sexy Beast was a serviceable crime thriller in the Guy Richie mold, but it didn’t really display much of his signature style.  This film on the other hand feels in many ways like a Jonathan Glazer music video expanded to feature length.  Like a music video, the film is mostly told visually and rarely uses dialogue as a means of exposition.  In fact, most of the dialogue that is in the film seems to be deliberately hard to understand; most of the actors in it have extremely thick Scottish accents and even if they didn’t most of what they’re saying is drowned out by sound effects and music.  As such, you’re sort of on your own in trying to figure out exactly what’s going on here and why.  That’s not to say it’s impossible to figure out by any means and in many ways the story seems to be deceptively simple, but it’s definitely not the kind of movie that spells out what’s going on and a lot of it is left up to the viewer to dissect.

Like the best of Jonathan Glazer’s music videos there are images in Under the Skin which are really interesting, unsettling, and in their own disturbing way awe inspiring.  I was particularly impressed by a moment about half way through that operates almost as a sort of jump scare, albeit an earned one.  However, in the back of my mind I felt like a lot of these ideas might have indeed been better served if they had indeed been divided up  and turned into a couple of music videos rather than stuck into a rather experimental feature film that’s more interested in creating a mood than it is in telling a story.  It’s not a film for anyone who’s lacking in patience or who demands a traditional three act structure, but I’m still definitely going to recommend the film if only for the three or four moments of brilliance that make it worth the price of admission.

*** out of Four

Captain America: The Winter Soldier(4/5/2014)

I’ve spent a lot of time shit-talking Marvel Studios over the years, but I swear, I do it out of love.  I’m someone who firmly believes that comic book movies (like movies of any genre really) are able to be truly great when they’re made with care by people who have the genuine ambition to make them properly.  It’s because of this belief that I do think it’s necessary to hold these movies to a reasonably high standard and not just fawn over expensive mediocrities like Iron Man 3 as if they were the second coming of Star Wars just because they’re “fun.”  That doesn’t mean I can’t give credit where credit is due; I’ve given positive ratings to five of the eight Marvel movies and the ones I’ve disliked have mostly just gotten mild disapproval.  Pretty much the only Marvel film I’ve really actively disliked was Thor: The Dark World which seemed to be a perfect example of Marvel at its laziest and most perfunctory.  It really stuck in my craw that that half-assed Thor sequel was given such an undeserved pass while better and more ambitious super hero movies like Man of Steel were raked through the coals last year.  Being the designated stick in the mud whenever a Marvel movie came out hasn’t always been easy, but I’m glad I’ve avoided crying wolf for so long because now it actually means something when I say that Marvel’s latest movie is a vast improvement over everything they’ve been doing lately and may well be their very best movie to date.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier picks up more or less where The Avengers left off.  Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is still getting used to life in the 21st century but unlike his fellow Avengers he has continued to work directly with S.H.I.E.L.D. and has been deployed on various missions, even though he’s become increasingly frustrated by Nick Fury’s (Samuel L. Jackson) hyper-secretive and sometimes overzealous tactics.  However, once Fury is attacked by a group of highly coordinated assassins led by a mysterious figure called The Winter Soldier, Rogers and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) both determine that there are moles within S.H.I.E.L.D. and that they’re going to need to work outside of that organization in order to find the source of all this chaos even as they’re hunted down by S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new acting director Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), who believes that Rogers and Black Widow had something to do with the attack on Fury.

Given that Marvel superhero movies are massive productions that need to play well overseas, a hero named “Captain America” who runs around in a red, white, and blue is an obvious marketing challenge.  It is perhaps out of a desire to help sell the character to these foreign markets that screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have been allowed to turn this film into a pretty overt and uncompromising critique of contemporary American foreign policy.  The film posits S.H.I.E.LD. as a stand in for the NSA. It’s an organization that was created for legitimate reasons but which turned into a monster of sorts out of an over-zealous desire to wipe the world of potential threats and which could become a true force for evil if its powers fell into the wrong hands.  The film’s finale has Captain America fighting to put a stop to what is essentially the world’s largest drone strike and there are also elements of the script that seem to be stand-ins for Wikileaks, PTSD, and the doctrine of preemptive strike.  These allusions are not subtle.  In fact, they’re so on the nose that they make the national security allegories in The Dark Knight look positively subliminal by comparison; and yet, I still rather admired that the filmmakers were interested in “going there” in the first place and doubly admired that they were able to broach these topics in ways that rarely felt didactic or preachy.

Of course most audiences aren’t going to go to a Marvel movie looking for politics, they’re going to see action, and this movie more than delivers on that front as well.  Captain America is a hero with relatively muted powers; he’s essentially just a really athletic person whose status as a chemically altered super soldier allows him to endure ridiculous action stunts more plausibly.  As such the action here generally seems slightly more grounded in traditional stunt work and fight choreography than it is in CGI drenched shows of super power.  This is not to say that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is at a loss for production value.  If reports are to be believed, this movie had the exact same budget as Thor: The Dark World, which baffles me because this movie was able to buy a lot more spectacle with its $170 million than that film did.  There’s nothing overly innovative about any of the action here and I wouldn’t say that any of the carnage here was masterful, but its fights and shootouts are appropriately big and it delivers everything that you’d expect on that front.

If I have one major complaint about Captain America: The Winter Soldier it’s probably that I don’t think it does a whole lot to develop Captain America himself.  Steve Rogers pretty much starts the film and ends the film as the same person, and he wasn’t an overly complex character to begin with.  In part, he almost kind of gets lost within his own movie and it’s rather large cast of sidekicks, bosses, and villains.  That’s a complaint that people have had about various comic book movies going back to the Burton/Schumacher Batman films and it’s probably only going to become more common as studios start trying to turn every superhero franchise into “the next The Avengers.”  If anything the characters with the slightly larger arcs may actually be Nick Fury and The Black Widow, who both have to face the challenges of the modern world with more nuance than Captain America does.  As for the film’s titular villain; I do think they could have spent a little more time working on his look (that long goth hairdo is not flattering) and the actor they got for the role seems to be in a bit over his head in the part, but he does make for a fairly menacing presence when he’s on screen and the filmmakers wisely don’t over-use him.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not a perfect movie.  There are a couple of plot holes in it, and its script resorts to convenient exposition dumps here and there.  However, this is about as good as I can really ever envision one of these Marvel movies ever being.  It even manages to advance the overarching Marvel story in ways that actually seem organic and meaningful and not like half-assed cameos and advertisements.  It’s a movie that gives me renewed hope for this whole cockamamie Marvel endeavor while further clarifying why I’ve found some of the previous entries lacking.  That said; this movie is not a complete reinvention of the wheel and the people who haven’t at least partially been in into the other Marvel movies still probably won’t be won over by this.  However, I suspect that the people who’ve been mixed on the previous entries will like this one a lot and longtime fans will straight up love it.  It almost certainly puts Thor: The Dark World to shame and I’d personally argue that it’s the studio’s strongest film to date, and yes that includes The Avengers.

***1/2 out of Four