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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Under the Skin

I'm thrilled to be returning to The Film Experience for "Hit Me With Your Best Shot", especially with such a visual dazzler as director Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin.  Under the Skin is a totally singular movie, an intoxicating and strange hybrid of science-fiction, art film, and gender commentary.

The first reason I chose my shot was to highlight the amazing power of great filmmaking and cinematography. Looking at this shot, it looks more like a painting you would see in a museum than a frame in a movie.  There were dozens of others I could have chosen that would have been equally striking.  When an indie director can make such beauty on a limited budget, what's the excuse for the many visually boring movies coming out of Hollywood each year?

Except on rare occasions, beauty alone does not make a great movie.  This shot comes at an important moment in the film.  Up to this point, our otherworldly, unnamed main character (Scarlett Johansson) has been focused on men.  She prowls the streets of Glasgow, hunts for vulnerable men, and captures takes control of them.  Then there comes a point midway through the movie that's a montage of women; all types of women, doing all kinds of ordinary things.  As Johansson watches these women, it seems she is learning how to take on the female form and female persona.  The movie becomes a swirling montage of women from which Johansson's face emerges, almost as if being reborn. The movie switches after this point as well, with Johansson abandoning her mission and experimenting with how to be a female in this society. This theme will echo through the second half of the movie and end with one of the most striking endings I've seen in a long time.  In the end, I think the shot is a crucial turning point in the movie and perhaps a keys to at least some of its illusive meaning.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Catching Up on 2014: Ebert, apes, and more

My annual Oscar/best of the year hangover lasted even longer this year, but I'm ready to do a little more blogging with thoughts on some 2014 releases, in order of my recommendation.

Life Itself

Roger Ebert was one of my personal heroes, and this movie was a very emotional experience (Here are my thoughts directly after his death last year).  I loved seeing his career, his passion for movies, and his open-hearted regard for filmmakers young and old.  It's also a beautiful portrait of his marriage to Chaz, a strong woman who obviously changed his life in such positive ways. I also loved how this movie doesn't look away from his faults, especially his childish competitiveness with Gene Siskel.  The highlight of the movie is perhaps some old outtakes from Siskel and Ebert (a show I watched religiously-6:30 on Saturday nights-as a young teen). I would have liked a little more about the movies he championed, but it's an amazing documentary by director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters), one of the filmmakers her truly championed.

Grade: A-

The Immigrant

Director James Gray's The Immigrant is a meticulously beautiful movie that feels less like a period movie and more like you're stepping back into early 20th-century New York City.  Marion Cotillard is simply brilliant as a young Polish immigrant lost amidst the lower East Side of New York and forced to turn to unsavory work. Joaquin Phoenix is her match in another psychologically tortured performance. There are scenes in the movie that are some of the best acting I've seen in the past several years, and the last shot of the movie is incredible.  My one big quibble with the movie was in the performance of Jeremy Renner, an actor I normally really like. He seemed too big, broad, and modern, and I felt the movie was a bit derailed when he was in it. It's distinctive and beautiful, though, and certainly didn't find enough of an audience.

Grade: B+

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

I'm honestly usually allergic to big summer blockbusters, which rarely fail in disappointing me, but this one has gotten great reviews, and I really enjoyed the previous Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  There's a lot I loved about Dawn, mostly having to do with the story of the apes. The combination of motion capture performance, special effects, and thoughtful story development helps the audience feel equally (Ok...much more) invested in the ape storyline than in the human's storyline. Caesar (captured by Andy Serkis) is a great protagonist, and we are deeply invested in the movie. The movie is also thoughtful in its development of themes, from tribalism to gun violence to jealousy and betrayal. Perhaps it's just because of current events, but I couldn't help reading flashes of the Israel-Palestine conflict in the movie. I also liked the way the movie mirrored themes across the apes and the humans.  The lead humans are played by Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty) and Keri Russell, and they do a solid job as well. The things I didn't like are my typical quibbles with summer blockbusters.  It's too long and ends with too many drawn out fight scenes.  As blockbusters go, though, this is a really good one!

Grade: B


I rarely go into a movie as fresh as I did this one, and it was a really fun experience. All I knew is that this movie included two performances by Jake Gyllenhall and was by director Dennis Villeneuve, who made Incendies and Prisoners, two movies which showed a truly cinematic director at work. I'd recommend going in fresh as well, so I'll avoid spoilers.  Enemy is strange, hypnotic, and perhaps prepostorous. The last shot will lead to many head scratches and discussions after the movie is done. To me, it was like a good short story in movie form made with a lot of cinematic artistry.  It's probably just David Lynch-lite, but I'm glad I saw it.

Grade: B


Here's a movie that isn't fully successful, but I was engaged and interested just about the whole time. I love indie director Darren Arronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and Black Swan are some of the most engaging movies of this century), so I was interested to see how he would approach a biblical epic with an enormous budget.  It's a little awkward.  The movie has many elements, such as visionary dream sequences and philosophical ideas, that are fascinating.  I especially liked the way they turned Noah into an environmental parable.  At the same time, the hand of the studios felt a little heavy in some parts-especially in the rock creatures (biblical Transformers?) and the ending chase around the ark. Russell Crowe holds the movie together and Emma Watson (Hermione from Harry Potter) makes an excellent foil as his daughter-in-law.

Grade: B- (but A- for ambition)


About the opposite of Noah is Locke, a one-man movie about a man driving a car and answering calls as he travels and finds his marriage and job falling apart around him.  Tom Hardy (best known as Bane from The Dark Knight Rises) does a great job as the only actor we see on screen, and he is almost enough to make me recommend this movie.  In the end, though, I didn't think the stakes were quite high enough to justify a full movie about this man.

Grade: B-