Friday, 21 March 2014

Review: Under The Skin

I knew that I was taking a gamble with this one before I even walked into the cinema.

Newly released at the time of writing (March 2014), Under The Skin (trailer) is a hot topic in the UK film world. For one thing, the film marks the end of a decade-long hiatus from English director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth). I'd never heard of Glazer, but I am told by Sight & Sound that he is ' of Britain's most exciting filmmakers.' Gee whiz, I thought. Maybe this could be good.

I had also heard that Under The Skin ignited high passions at its Venice Film Festival premiere: some critics cheered in exultation ('...a tour de force of sensory and sensual filmmaking...') while others booed in condemnation ('...torpid and silly...')

I do like seeking out polarizing films. Worst-case scenario is that I learn what the controversy is all about, and best-case is that I end up being one of the ones who loves it.


Under The Skin begins with the form of a dead Scarlett Johannson being assumed by a being. Film critics unanimously identify that the being is an alien, although it could just as likely be a ghost or a demon or something.

The being, which I will henceforth call Scarlett, spends most of the movie driving around the Scottish highlands in an unmarked white van. Her van is constantly followed by a motorcycle-driving cohort (Jeremy McWilliams). Is he also an alien/clone/golem/whatever? Maybe, I can't tell.

Scarlett lures several male characters into a dark, expressionistic room where they sink into and become entrapped in a tar-like floor. Are the victims getting killed? Is this real, or is it a Rosemary's Baby-esque figurative representation of something else?

Is this how Scarlett and the possible other shapeshifter/android/warlock thing eat? If they feed on people, does that introduce the possibility that they are vampires?

If Under The Skin knows the answer to any of these questions, it's not telling.

My Take

As you can probably tell from my attempt at a synopsis, this film is very scant on plot and character information. In fact, it's less a 'feature film' than it is a story-less art film. A good chunk of its runtime consists of ponderous, wordless shots of random passersby, stretches of open road and our lead's face.

Plus whatever this is.

Some critics insist that Scarlett has a character arc, but the sheer lack of character information to support their claims seems only to point up their vivid imaginations. The Michel Faber source novel has a much more defined story, but considering this in relation to the film adaptation would be extracurricular cheating.

I kept puzzling over the logic regarding Scarlett's behavior. I know that she is meant to be a stranger learning about our world, but I have no idea what Scarlett already knows, and what she has yet to find out. In the final bit of the film we see her stare in bemusement at a television screen and struggle to negotiate a spiral staircase; but earlier we see her drive, speak English fluently and traverse a different staircase easily. How come she knows some of these simple things, and not others? How come she knows anything at all?

Clearly the filmmakers don't intend for its audience to think about the details as much as I did, but it's really hard for me to get into a movie when I feel like it isn't meeting me halfway. There isn't a voiceover, text-exposition, dialogue, or any other kind of hint as to what's going on.

But there is Scarlett Johannson making a blank face...

That's the one.

One of the much-mooted creative decisions behind the making of Under The Skin is that much of the filming was done on the street, in secret, and from within a real van. All the Scottish people had no clue that they were being filmed, and were oblivious to the movie-star identity of the strange white-van-woman with the darkened hair and passable English accent.

Knowing this behind-the-scenes fact led to an odd viewing experience for me. In an early shopping mall-set sequence, the shoppers surrounding Scarlett seemed alive in a way no movie crowd does. The people were sprawling and meandering on their own agendas, and some quickly glanced at Scarlett as they passed her.

I thought: If these people can't recognize a Scarlett Johannson right under their noses, God only knows what kind of nastiness this creepy, stoic vampire will be able to get away with later in this film.

While I liked this foreboding aspect of the secret-filming technique at the beginning of Under The Skin, my opinion quickly changed when I saw Scarlett interact with the 'real' people. Where on any other movie the actors co-operate to create an illusory reality, Under The Skin had one woman acting out an illusory reality amidst dozens of completely unaware people just being normal in their 'real' reality. 

At one point Scarlett trips on a busy sidewalk and falls to the ground. She lies there face-down until a couple of kind people right her. Then she continues marching down the street. Instead of believe in the fiction of the movie, all I could think was: This is Scarlett Johannson playing a silly game all by herself.

While the regular people are emotive, helpful and solicitous of their time, the subject of this film - and one of its precious few actors - is a characterless cipher. I understand that the Scarlett character is meant to be an alien, but her behavior looks suspiciously - and perhaps conveniently - like lame, wooden acting.

DIY Under The Skin simulation: Shake your monitor around, stare at this image for 108 minutes, and imagine she's driving.

Like David Lynch's films, Under The Skin has a distinctively abstract style and an ardent critical fanbase. Also like David Lynch's films, I find Under The Skin to be poorly-acted and impenetrable.

I started to imagine what Under The Skin's goals were, based retroactively on the aspects of it that critics gushed about. My findings are as follows:

1.) The European setting, drab scenery, star power, experimental filming style and the fact that this is the long-in the works, much-anticipated return of a director means that critics will be convinced that there must be something to it - and even if they don't know what the 'something' is, the mystery itself is still super-amazing, somehow. (Little White Lies)

2.) The long takes and expressionistic imagery mean that some will even herald it as a hypnotic, Kubrickian masterpiece. ( The SkinnyThe Daily Telegraph)

Then I realized that maybe this whole film was secretly planned out to be The Great Scarlett Johannson Vanity Project. My evidence for thinking this is as follows:

1.) Scarlett Johannson's character in Under The Skin is an irresistible seductress. This maintains Johannson's sex-bomb reputation. (The Evening Standard)

2.) Sex-bomb reputation-having Johannson's 'alien adrift in a sea of regular people' character will invite parallels to Johannson's real-life superiority over us normies. (The Guardian)

3.) Johannson's face is present in most of the shots. This ensures maximum face-gaze time for the audience.

4.) Elongated shots of Johansson peering into mirrors mean that the audience gets to see two Scarletts simultaneously. This ensures even more face-gaze time for the audience.

5.) Johannson's character is the only person in the film to have flattering movie-makeup. This accentuates her face so that the audience will gaze at it more.

6.) Johannson's character seduces a disfigured man played by a real-life Neurofibromatosis sufferer. The juxtaposition of two-time Esquire 'Sexiest Woman Alive' Johannson with this man will accentuate the latter's flatteringly made-up face even more.

7.) Johannson's chic outfit and new hairstyle mean that populist magazines (Dazed & Confused) will do cover stories about her. These articles will be packed with photographs of her in her chic outfit and flattering makeup.

8.) The fact that Under The Skin is independent, English and made by an esteemed director mean that highbrow magazines (Sight & SoundThe New Yorker) will do cover stories about her. These articles will be packed with photographs of her in her chic outfit and flattering makeup.

9.) Johannson's active participation in the making of an independent, English film by an esteemed director will make her a discerning filmmaking force who deserves applause. (The Guardian)

10.) Scarlett Johannson has never played an alien before, so the critics (The Evening Standardwill hail her performance as a groundbreaking, applause-deserving expansion of her ability.

11.) Johannson appears nude a couple of times, so at least one critic (The Independent) will refer to her performance as 'brave'. 

I'm completely joking, of course. I don't even pretend to know what Scarlett Johannson and Jonathan Glazer's intentions were here; I'm just offering a play-by-play account of my wandering brain's failure to concentrate on Under The Skin.


Further Reading

For more about creepy predators, you can see my post about Peeping Tom.

Screengrabs: Under The Skin was produced by Film Four, the British Film Institute, Nick Weschler Productions, JW Films, Scottish Screen and UK Film Council, in association with Silver Reel, Creative Scotland and FilmNation Entertainment. Screengrabs were from the official trailer.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Review: Marwencol

It was the title that attracted my attention. Not because I knew what Marwencol (2010, trailer) meant, but because I hadn't the first clue.

It didn't sound like any word I knew, and if it was a non-English word I couldn't identify the language. It also didn't sound like a name or a place. The non-capitalization of the letters signified that it probably wasn't an acronym.


Well, it turns out that Marwencol is the name of a place, but Marwencol is not a place in the traditional sense.

'On April 8, 2000, Mark Hogancamp was in a bar', says Mark's doctor. 'Left the bar about closing time, and a group of five individuals had been in the bar harassing him, then they went outside, followed him and beat him senseless, stomped on him and did some pretty bad damage to his brain. The doctors had to rebuild his face. The impact on the brain from the assault was such that he was in a coma for nine days.'

Mark lost all of his memories and had to re-learn how to eat, walk and write. Mark could not afford regular outpatient therapy, so he...found some old plywood and started to construct a miniature building.

'I figured: 'All right, what's the first thing I gotta work on? That's my imagination'...I came flying over in my P-40 War Hawk, on fire, and it's all a flat field down below, and I crash-landed. And when I walked into town there was nobody there. And then, one by one, beautiful Barbie-looking women started emerging...'

Mark photographs scenarios using 1/6-scale dolls, his own verisimilar constructions, and natural scenery to create the chronicles of his fictitious World War II-era Belgian town Marwencol (named for Mark and his friends Wendy and Colleen).

My Take

One of the main threads of interest Marwencol had for me was the theme of artistic expression, and the question of whether or not Mark is an 'artist'.

If I consider the purest function of art - a means to express the angst and joy of the artist's life - then Mark absolutely is an artist. His Marwencol tales are not re-enactments of wartime skirmishes; they are original stories. They all directly pertain to Mark's life, and the characters are direct avatars of himself and the people he knows.

In addition to being an imagination exercise, Marwencol eventually became a memory-recovery aid: 'My memories that I do get, they come back in stills. Just a single shot, but no context. All's I have is a photo to remind me that, yeah okay, I was married. Wow. And to a good-looking girl, too.'

Mark's struggles to recall his own wedding inspired a Marwencol episode in which his figure gets married. Also, Marwencol social hub Hogancamp's Bar recalls The Anchorage, Mark's workplace and the site of his assault.

In the most intense and graphic Marwencol sequence, Mark is abducted and tortured by a gang of SS officers.

'There's one major difference I found immediately between Mark's work and a lot of other contemporary art that I look at,' says Tod Lippy, editor of art periodical Esopus Magazine. 'And that is: particularly when you're using dolls, there's generally a very strong sense of irony in the, 'I'm photographing dolls, isn't that funny or subversive?' And the thing that struck me immediately about Mark's work is that...he's not using the work as a tool to do something else, the work is him.'

I found it funny to hear someone analyze Marwencol using terminology like 'subversive' and 'irony', because Mark is much too earnest to indulge in such arty, highfalutin concepts. Mark is not particularly interested in self-identifying as an artist, thinking about his place in the art world, or conveying abstract ideas
. However, regardless of this, his need to create and his emotional sincerity make his works so much more meaningful than they would be if he was just being cute and ironic.

Marwencol is a very intimate study of Mark's mind and personality. He comes across as a skittish and reserved guy, but he has such a strong bond of trust with friend and Marwencol director Jeff Malmberg that he lets his thoughts flow freely: 'Everybody at one time or another wishes they had a double that could do the things that they could never do. So what I do is, with alter egos, I tell my friends 'You can be anybody you want, you can do anything you want in my town.''

When Mark accepts a chance to put his photos on display at a New York City gallery, we hear the stream of consciousness of his hopes and worries. On one hand: '[In] Greenwich Village - the weirdest place on the planet - I can walk in high heels and nobody'd care! Some dude would say 'hey, nice shoes!' 'thanks, man, I like your shoes too.' You know what I mean? People like me! Nobody cares, they're all artists and stuff down there.'

On the other hand: 'I build Marwencol for me. For my therapy, and now it's like everybody's, like everybody wants to play in it or be part of it, and I don't want all that. It's like this is the one last thing that I don't ever want taken from me, and it seems like it is...but theoretically it's not, it's still mine.'

There are a couple of endearing moments where Mark self-consciously laughs at weird aspects of his life, such as when he reveals his secret proclivity for wearing womens' clothes - 'It gets stranger by the moment, doesn't it?' - by opening a closet containing 218 pairs of heels. 'None of these are ones I've stole. They were all given to me by women. They were, I'm not kidding!'

Marwencol mostly takes place in Mark's upstate-New York home town. This placid, suburban environment combined with Mark's mild manner and solitude really gave me the feeling of the film taking place in the aftermath of a huge, shocking event.

'My character in the story had to create something for himself to deal with the trauma that he still had from being attacked by five SS and beaten, and kicked almost to death. So it was a lot of wear and tear on his mind, so he found comfort in building his own little world, his own little town, peopled with 1/6 scale dolls, each with a personality.'

I suppose the question that remains at the end of Marwencol is: will Mark's self-made therapy enable him to successfully recover his lost life? If not, will he be able to find the help he needs to heal?

Or will his town just keep evolving into smaller- and smaller-scale levels?


Further Reading

For more Marwencol pictures, see the gallery of Mark Hogancamp's official Marwencol website.

For more documentaries, you can see my post about Corman's World.

Screengrabs: Marwencol was produced by Open Face. The DVD was distributed by The Cinema Guild.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Article: 'The Hobbit' and the Phantom Menace Effect

The 1999 film Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace heralded George Lucas's return to his fantasy-blockbuster Star Wars series to double-dip a second trilogy out of the property.

A second, infamously terrible trilogy.

When the news broke in 2010 that Peter Jackson was going to do the same thing with his Lord of the Rings cinematic universe, I couldn't help but wonder if he would fall into the same traps that Lucas did.

Surely enough, I found myself having eerie Phantom flashbacks upon seeing the first Hobbit movie 'An Unexpected Journey'.



In the 1977 Star Wars film ('A New Hope'), Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) tells Luke (Mark Hamill) that once upon a time his father was '...the best star-pilot in the galaxy, and a cunning warrior', and later in Return of the Jedi that he '...was seduced by the dark side of the Force...the good man who was your father was destroyed.'

The whole premise of the Star Wars prequels was to follow up this scant information with the story of how the guy who became Darth Vader became Darth Vader. The prequels unfortunately lacked an identity of their own, and were instead just a weird scaffolding on which many tiny, pointless details of the old trilogy were established. In Phantom we find out the origin of C-3PO, and in Episode II: Attack of the Clones we learn stuff about Boba Fett as a little kid.

Likewise, The Hobbit's framing device - old Bilbo (Ian Holm) writing his memoir - uses up precious runtime to show us Frodo (Elijah Wood) nailing a 'No admittance' sign on Bilbo's gate. This is to explain how the sign got there in Fellowship of the Ring, you see.

Thank God they tied up that loose end...

I got the feeling that each trilogy is being treated as a side of an intricate algebra problem: The Hobbit is on one side of the equation and Lord of the Rings is on the other, and it is the former's duty to add up to the latter. 

Seeds are planted about Rings villain Sauron (even though The Hobbit was written before J.R.R. Tolkien even came up with the guy), and orc villain Azog is plundered from the dusty recesses of the Lord of the Rings appendices just to make the story more dangerous and urgent.

Tolkien's The Hobbit is just a story of a bunch of companions trying to recover some gold, and the Star Wars prequels are just about the downfall of a guy who is only fairly important to later events. All these prequel movies feel like they are the insecure sibling of a successful older brother. You don't have to be a huge, giant, epic story like your brother is, I want to reassure them all. Just be yourself. It'll be okay.

The Hobbit threw in Rings characters that weren't even in the book - Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and the original Ian Holm Bilbo, apparently just for brand recognition. Besides these safe bets there aren't any memorable characters. Instead, there is just a roster of dwarf characters that are so numerous and thinly-defined that they are just an unidentifiable, dwarfy mush. 

'Aragorn stand-in' is his name, I think.

I don't know if 'remind' is the right word, but it reminds me of the equally bland Star Wars prequel characters (Stoic Liam Neeson, Stoic Natalie Portman, Stoic Ewan McGregor...) that were such a letdown from the colorful Star Wars characters of yore.

Technology, Comfort and Laurel-Resting

When Lucas and Jackson first made Star Wars and Fellowship of the Ring, they were both relatively inexperienced filmmakers trying to make projects in genres that can easily be dismissed as dumb drivel. They were scrappy underdogs with a lot to prove, and their time and budget constraints reflected that.

Both trilogies ended up becoming massive cultural landmarks and generating billions of dollars of revenue. That's scrappy underdog graduation money.

In the interim between the original Star Wars films and the prequels, George Lucas funded his special effects company Industrial Light and Magic (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Last CrusadeWho Framed Roger Rabbit) into developing computer-generated imagery (such as in The Abyss and Jurassic Park). 'With the new digital technology', Lucas said, 'whatever I can imagine I can do.'

For the prequels, Lucas ditched physical effects such as matte paintings, stop-motion animation, miniatures and even sets. Instead, he filmed the actors in front of green screens, then added everything else in post. Screw filming on actual locations like the Tunisian desert - that shit's hard.

'We have clones and droids and flying termites and rockets taking off, flying gunships, ground troops, 200 jedi...' Too bad that the actors amid all this frantic CG garbage look suspiciously like they are standing in a small, green room.

Jackson also used his surfeit of Hobbit pocket money to purchase so many green screens that poor Ian McKellen had a stress breakdown on a set that looked like this:

Green. Green everywhere. Can't escape. Green. Crushing me. Green. Can't breathe. Green.

Jackson's line on CGI is almost verbatim of Lucas's: 'The good thing about technology is that anything I imagine can now be put on screen'. The great miniatures, sets and clever forced-perspective illusions of the Rings days became overshadowed by the much safer and more easily mutable 'fix it in post' method. He certainly had the scratch to do that - the gargantuan $225 million he was bestowed to make each Hobbit movie is enough to make two and a half Rings movies.

Peter Jackson has hit upon a kind of Midas curse with CGI: his Weta Digital computer artists can render anything they want in flawless detail, but in these Hobbit movies he uses this power to create things that are so inherently silly that no amount of digital artistry can make them believable - such as a giant-rabbit-drawn sleigh, a battle between living mountains; and a tiny goblin with his huge, testicle-headed cousin.

Pixar presents: Finding Goblo, coming this summer.

Phantom Menace also had the then-best digital effects, but in both cases their painstakingly-crafted yet overly-outlandish CG characters have a way less convincing  screen presence than the Muppets. 

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers features a sequence involving vicious creatures called 'wargs'. I really liked their bear/hyena/wolf-looking design - they don't necessarily look sinister, more like real(ish) predatory animals. 

In The Hobbit they rejiggered the wargs to have oversized fangs, beady angry-eyes and pointy, sharp-edged faces - like they ran the designs through an 'evil' filter in their software.

The Rings films made great use of 'digital color grading', the manipulation of each scene's color saturation to evoke different moods. Warm greens in the Shire, desaturated greys in a dark mine; and eerie, soft, metallic lighting in an elven enclave.

The Hobbit films embrace the uniform, done-to-death blue/orange color scheme that every single blockbuster uses nowadays.

Also, both the Hobbit movies and Star Wars prequels eschew each of their original series' gritty, lived-in worlds in favor of blander, faker-looking digital environments.



At this point I'm just listing small grievances, and I could go on and on. 

The thing is, I don't actually think that the Hobbit movies even begin to approach the shoddiness of the Star Wars prequels; I'm just concerned that Peter Jackson is going down a similar road. I'm not diagnosing him with the dreaded Lucas-influenza, but I have been noticing that nasty cough he's developing.

It could be that Jackson actually doesn't have as much creative control as I think he does, and the excessive CG and the blue/orange thing are trend-adhering ways for MGM/Warners to homogenize their films into reaping a bigger box office return on their massive investment.

Maybe Jackson meant to make one or two movies as previously planned, but the studios wanted to stretch it into three and he said yes because he loves Tolkien, he has fun making these films, and he'd rather do it than have someone else hijack his legacy. I certainly couldn't fault him for that.

In any event, my bitching is pretty farcical: The Lord of the Rings movies are my generation's Star Wars, and they captured my imagination since I saw the first one at age nine. I wouldn't miss a Middle Earth follow-up for the world, lesser quality be damned.

Incidentally: I can only hope that the first of the next wave of Star Wars movies will be decent, but I'll definitely go see it when it comes out regardless of what people say. Call me a sucker - 'fool me so many times, shame on me' right?

Maybe. But a new Star Wars movie?! It could be totally killer!

Further Reading

For more of my 'articles', you can see my posts entitled 'Four Directions of Bond' and 'Fantasia and Racism Reparations in Old Cartoons'.

For a detailed and entertaining treatise on the faults of the Star Wars prequels, you can see Red Letter Media's epic-length video reviews.

Screengrabs: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was produced by New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and WingNut Films. The UK DVD 'The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Extended Edition was released by MGM.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this weblog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.