292 posts tagged movie reviews
JOHN WICK (2014)
This is the story about a guy and his dog.
Not just any guy, and not just any dog. John Wick's the guy, and you mess with him…well, then you've got a death wish. When tragedy after tragedy befalls the titular ex-hitman, John Wick throws all caution to the wind and decides to go all scorched earth on his foes. This guy goes YOLO so hard, it would give Drake a run for his money.
Starring Keanu Reeves as the title character, John Wick is the first feature film from stunt directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (though Stahelski has the lone credit on the screen). Both Leitch and Stahelski are household names in the stunt industry, being the heavyweights responsible for the action awesomeness in films like Fight Club, 300, The Bourne Ultimatum, Serenity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and the more near and dear to Keanu Reeves’ heart: The Matrix Trilogy. Naturally, the fight scenes in John Wick are swift, tight, hard-hitting, and obnoxiously awesome.The film also stars Game of Thrones' Alfie Allen, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's Michael Nyqvist, Willem Dafoe, Bridget Moynahan, John Leguizamo and Adrianne Palicki.
John Wick may not be as over the top, subversive and campy as Shoot ‘Em Up, but it echoes the bombastic film in spirit. Wick isn’t necessarily the most interesting character, but the way people around him respond to his doom and gloom reputation makes for wildly entertaining fun. Some audiences may feel that the character barely had any personality to speak of, but I didn’t mind this too much as it suited the grim reaper persona he seemed to be modeled after. Reeves wears this role like a glove, incorporating John Constantine’s jaded, slightly devil-may-care attitude with the calm, zen-like demeanor of The Matrix's chosen one Neo. Being no stranger to action, Reeves is completely believable in the action scenes, and considering that most of the fight scenes were fast and in close quarters, it would not surprise me to find out if the 47 Ronin star did most of his own stunts.
Apart from the fantastic action sequences, another positive aspect of the film was its self-awareness. It never really ventured into the meta territory that made Shoot ‘Em Up so memorable, but it was generally aware of its own ridiculousness. The production design and cinematography of the film was also really well done, featuring great sets and brilliant use of lighting and color, as well as dynamic camera angles that really showed off the meticulous stunt work that went into the fight sequences. I also really loved the elegance of the criminal underworld featured in the film. We can get so used to seeing a seedy type of gangster universe in this genre that any time there’s a semblance of decorum and class, it stands out.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed John Wick. Save for a slightly rushed and underwhelming ending, it was a lot of fun to watch. It was also a treat to see Reeves reunited with many of his former collaborators, from the directors to The Matrix Reloaded's Daniel Bernhardt and Randall Duk Kim. See John Wick this weekend if you are a fan of action, and if you liked Shoot ‘Em Up.
From Training Day scribe and End of Watch director David Ayer comes a World War II drama centered on the five-man crew of an American tanker and their 300 Spartan-esque stand against an army of Nazis. Starring Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña and Jon Bernthal, the film captures the horrors of war in ways we’ve seen before in cinema, yet it never quite achieves the lingering provocativeness of Saving Private Ryan, or the sheer desperation captured in Black Hawk Down, or the engaging storytelling in The Hurt Locker. The film offered some memorable moments, and featured some spectacular performances from Lerman, LaBeouf and Bernthal, but it never quite connected, although Ayer certainly tried to make his protagonists as human and likable as possible. What makes Fury unique is the characters’ interactions with and within the tank, almost giving the audience a sense that the tank is itself a sixth character. Infantry and cavalry always get featured in war movies, but only now has a story about tank soldiers been spotlighted. It was interesting to see how the inside of a tank operates when under heavy siege; even more so because the troops inside the tank are such individuals, fulfilling not only their respective military duties but also inhabiting different supportive roles within the unit as well.
While the war action aspect of the film may have been a little underwhelming (save for one exciting, strategy-laden scene involving four American tanks against one German one), it was the dynamic between the characters that really made Fury worth the watch. There was a sense of brotherhood and camaraderie that every good war movie always imparts to the audience, and this was thanks in large part to the solid acting from Lerman and LaBeouf especially. Say what you will about LaBeouf, but the guy is a fantastic actor. He may be taking method a little far, and I don’t think his stint on Even Stevens still completely justifies his adulthood of strange behavior, but there’s some real talent here and LaBeouf shows that he can take on a role that has a lot of depth and complexity and make it his own. Lerman, on the other hand, showed off his acting chops before on The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and it was good to see that that wasn’t just a fluke. Lerman was so good in Fury that I could almost say it blocks out the godawfulness of The Three Musketeers movie he was in. Almost.
Lerman and LaBeouf were standouts, but Bernthal and Peña also offered some solid performances. It’s difficult to really give Bernthal any major props because we’re used to seeing him play unsavory tough guys (The Walking Dead, Mob City), but there were moments in Fury where he really shone. Peña brought a lot of levity to the otherwise grisly story, and while it was great that he was central to most of the humor in the movie, I was hoping that he would be more than the guy who serves up the punchlines. Pitt has never really been my favorite actor, only because he seems to always come off very wooden (especially in the way he speaks). His performance in Fury is no exception. There was a general lack of intensity on his face that, while perfectly attributable to his character’s cynicism regarding the war, made him slightly less of a beacon of inspiration for his ragtag group of soldiers.
The film looked great, thanks to DP Roman Vasyanov (who worked with Ayer before on End of Watch) and the dynamic camera movement. There were also some really great staging and picturesque scenes. One thing that did bother me a bit about the film, however, was the enunciation from the actors. While I am all about doing whatever it takes to get your character across to the audience, it was honestly difficult to understand some of the dialogue from the actors, because they were reciting the lines with too much character acting (mumbling, putting on accents, etc). Jason Isaacs, whom I love to death, had a really strange American accent (I think he was going for New York) in the film that was really distracting.
Overall, while Fury was certainly a solid flick, it fell a little short of being epic, never really making any novel or interesting statements about war and the experiences of soldiers that previous films in this genre have commented on. If you are a fan of war movies, this is certainly worth the watch for its focus on tanks, but if you’re looking for something more, you may be a little disappointed. While it featured some great performances and was generally well shot, at the end of the day I would not consider it a film that left a lasting impression.
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (2014)
Something stinks, and it’s not the smell of stale pepperoni pizza. It’s the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, which I was forced to watch out of sheer nostalgia. Alas, fond childhood memories of this 80s comics turned 90s cartoon weren’t nearly enough to mask the overall sewer-worthiness of this film.
Now even I know that when it comes to material that originated in the mid-80s to early 90s, a sort of audience abandon is expected and a generous suspension of disbelief is practically a given. I wasn’t looking forward to a masterpiece of epic proportions; after all, with armed, mutated reptiles who have a rat for a sensei for heroes, there’s really only so much one can do. Casting Megan Fox as investigative reporter April O’Neil, however, hardly inspired confidence that the producers of this film put in even the most minimal of efforts. It’s not that an Academy Award winner was necessary to play this role, but it’s a little tough to take Fox seriously as a savvy, hard-hitting journalist when her default expression is vacant and her demeanor incapable. Let’s just say that you wouldn’t trust her to give you the weather, let alone the news. The April O’Neil I remember from the 90s cartoons I watched religiously as a kid was strong, resourceful and not afraid to get down and dirty. Fox not only looked like she didn’t know what she was doing half the time, but her character was objectified in the film in ways I don’t remember was in the source material. Instead of Fox putting in a bit of effort to act like the shrewd April O’Neil we know and love, the character seemed to be written around the actresses’ bombshell persona. The result was a character who was constantly being hit on by her smarmy cameraman (played by Will Arnett), and an actual, shameless booty shot in the middle of a crisis. It’s sad that in 2014, when a more progressive attitude towards women should be expected, a 90s version of a character is portrayed in a much less sexist way in comparison. You can scoff all you like at my “serious business” interpretation of what was likely supposed to be a mindless blockbuster movie of a campy 90s cartoon, but it’s characters like April whom I looked up to when I was a kid dreaming about one day becoming a journalist.
But April was hardly the star of the show, was she? The 2014 reimagining of TMNT does get some things right, and that’s in its characterization of the turtles. Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello were very much like the characters in the original series, and more thought seemed to be given to crafting their personalities than April’s. Although it seemed like they got less screen time compared to the vacuum taken up by Megan Fox, Will Arnett, random Whoopi Goldberg and William Fichtner (who über camped it up in this movie as the money-hungry ex-scientist Eric Sacks).
Fun fact: when I was growing up, my cousins and I would always choose characters in the shows we watched, and I would always get the short end of the stick because I was the youngest. I would get last pick, so naturally I’d get saddled with all the shitty characters no one wanted. I was relegated to the green/white ranger in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers because all the girls were taken. I got Ma-Ti, the kid with the least awesome power in Captain Planet and the Planeteers, because again both girls were taken. In The Land Before Time, I got Ducky because my cousins would tease me for my larger than average posterior. And I got Raphael, because no one wanted the temperamental timebomb in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Turns out, however, that Raphael was kind of the badass of the quartet, and I ended up enjoying the fact that I got the diamond in the rough. The film does a good job in making his character shine, which was probably the only highlight of the entire movie for me.
Despite the entertainment provided by the incessantly squabbling but lovable heroes, there were more problematic elements than positive. The turtles’ new origin story was silly, and April’s connection to them even harder to swallow. Shredder, Big Bad that he was in the original series, was a hollow shell of a character in the movie who had zero personality. The action scenes were meager, and what was there (although visually impressive and props to the VFX team for pulling it off) was noisy, jumbled action. Granted there were some genuinely humorous moments - a jamming scene between the turtles while in an elevator for one - but overall, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a film that feels largely unnecessary, and a little half-assed. Watch the 2006 animated film instead.
Thanks to man’s mishandling of the global warming crisis, Earth has frozen over and humanity’s last survivors have taken refuge aboard a perpetually moving train called Snowpiercer. Stuck on this never-ending locomotive, the remnants of human society have established a system of sorts - a way to ensure that the population is under control and that everyone is in their rightful place. Sounds like the perfect recipe for a dystopian, post-apocalyptic drama, and The Host director Bong Joon-Ho surely delivers with a film that is an unusual combination of whimsical and grim, tackling ideas that range from Marxist principles to a reimagining of the Biblical story of Noah’s ark. But this science fiction flick is not without a heart, for its three-dimensional, well written characters ground the larger than life tale, encouraging the audience to invest in the story as it goes on. Visually interesting, challenging and provocative, Snowpiercer is unquestionably the must-see movie of the summer.
Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, the film stars Chris Evans, Song Kang Ho, Ko Ah Sung, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton and Octavia Spencer. With a host of talented actors like these, it was clear that Bong and co-writer Kelly Masterson were intent on building this story from the ground up, anchoring the film with characters who were compelling but not stereotypical. Snowpiercer showcases Chris Evans’ best performance to date, with the Captain America star taking on a role that would seem archetypal at first, but eventually evolving into something quite profound. Evans’ Curtis Everett is the reluctant leader of the survivors residing in the tail end of the train. The tail end suffers the worst conditions, from meager food to cramped living spaces, not to mention the severe punishments that befall those who cause any uproar. There’s a caste system on the train, consisting of the most affluent in the front and the most unfortunate and undesirable in the back. Naturally, such conditions cannot go on forever, and every now and then an uprising ensues that results in the thinning out of the train population. However, none of the tail enders have ever successfully made it to the front of the train and there are never any substantial changes made to the social hierarchy despite the constant threats of revolution. The tail enders are becoming increasingly desperate, and Curtis and his crew finally hatch a plan to make their way to the front of the train in hopes that they can change things once and for all.
It was refreshing to see Evans taken on a role that had a lot more dimension, depth and daring than the ones we have been used to seeing him play. His Curtis Everett is far from the wholesome image of Captain America or the charming peacock that was Johnny Storm/The Human Torch from Fantastic Four. Evans also seemed to really stretch himself emotionally in this role, often giving the impression that the weight of the world was on his character’s shoulders. It was easy to see the physical and mental exhaustion on his face, making his character believable and sympathetic. Evans wasn’t the only memorable part of the film, however, as Song Kang Ho and Ko Ah Sung were also quite entertaining as the father-daughter duo who help Curtis open the doors to each train cart. They provided some comic relief but were also really charming and endearing. Both characters too, like Curtis, seemed easy enough to read and size up, but as the story progressed, became much more interesting.
Tilda Swinton, however, was undoubtedly the scene stealer in the whole film. Swinton is widely known as a wonderfully versatile actress, floating from role to role effortlessly and inhabiting each character like a second skin. It’s rare to find actresses who are true character actors in the sense that they can mold themselves to any role with no regard for appearances; this is in large part to the double standard of Hollywood, really, where if you’re willing to get down and dirty for a role to a point where you’re nearly unrecognizable, you are ignored over actresses who look pretty on screen. While roles for actresses have become much more diverse, challenging and rewarding, there is still a premium placed on women in Hollywood to look and act a certain way. This results in rather limiting roles. When male actors deliver performances of complete and utter abandon, such as say Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight or Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, they are often praised for being dirty, grimy, unappealing - lauded for playing roles that aren’t easy to love. Actresses, on the other hand, rarely get offered roles that are as complex while allowing them to look as dirty, grimy and unappealing as it gets. Charlize Theron notably went to these lengths for Monster, but for the most part, Hollywood still expects actresses to be eye candy in a film. Swinton constantly refuses to be placed in that box, giving her a liberty that consistently results in brilliant, breathtaking performances (most recently and notably her criminally underrated effort in Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin).
And Snowpiercer isn’t any different from what we’ve come to expect from Swinton. In it, she plays ruthless yet exceedingly gaudy government emissary Mason (allegedly originally a male character). Mason’s garish looks are not only representative of the excesses of the affluent onboard the Snowpiercer, but they also provide extreme contrast to the gritty grays of the tail enders. When she emerges from behind her slew of bodyguards, dressed in her elaborate outfits and flailing about in her exaggerated Yorkshire accent, she sticks out like a sore thumb. Her character’s cartoonishness was delightful, and a welcome sight against the backdrop of bleakness in the first half of the film.
EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014)
When Earth is invaded by über adaptive aliens called Mimics, Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is sent to London to meet with the head of the United Defense Force (UDF), General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson) to coordinate a plan of attack - a last ditch effort to prevent the rest of humanity from being decimated. There’s just one slight problem: Brigham and Cage have totally different ideas on how to win the war. Cage is more salesman than soldier. Specializing in media relations for the American military rather than combat tactics for frontal assaults against ferocious alien creatures, Cage is anything but hero material. He can convince just about anyone to join a cause, layering on the smooth talk and winning smile, but ask him to risk his life by being embedded on the front lines? Fat chance. So color Cage confuzzled when he finds that he is stuck in some kind temporal loop where he relives the day of this Battle of Normandy-esque invasion over and over again, forced to play the hero by a painful and cruel game of trial and error. If Dark Souls starred Jerry Maguire battling Aliens, you’d have Edge of Tomorrow.
Based on the graphic novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka and Yoshitoshi Abe, the film is directed by The Bourne Identity and Mr. and Mrs. Smith's Doug Liman. It's surprisingly more fun than its gloomy trailer would lead audiences to believe. Yes, it's apocalyptic and gritty, but there's some levity due to the self-awareness of its Groundhog Day premise. Much of the humor is courtesy of the ever charismatic national treasure that is Bill Paxton. The majority of the film, however, is mostly action-packed apocalypse, and Liman certainly injects his spy thriller sensibilities into it with a lot of handheld camerawork. It was great to see Cruise play the bumbling, reluctant hero for once instead of the boy scout, and he definitely carried the film, even though very little about his character is known. This lack of character development is one of the fatal flaws of the film, which is unsurprising due to the fact that the script was penned by The Tourist and Jack Reacher's Christopher McQuarrie, who doesn't seem to know how to make characters more compelling than how they are already written on the surface. Edge of Tomorrow is entertaining, but it’s only entertaining because its actors commit to their roles, regardless of how limited they are in dimension.
Aside from the always fantastic Cruise and Paxton, a no-nonsense Emily Blunt plays Rita Vrataski, icon of the war exemplary for having gone head to head with a Mimic and lived to tell about it. Dubbed the Angel of Verdun (or Full Metal Bitch to others), she is tough, prickly and incredibly jaded, a hostility that is mostly due to the burden of loss and exasperation at her encounters with the indomitable Mimics. If Cruise is a mainstay of science fiction films, one could say that Blunt is slowly becoming his female counterpart, being no stranger to the genre with her involvement in The Adjustment Bureau and Looper. It was refreshing to see a female character who was very unapologetic about her role in the war, and her singular focus on bringing down as many Mimics as possible wasn’t played off like some kind of macho schtick, but rather a cut-and-dried mission that she just wanted to finish. What’s even better is that this is a female character who isn’t a damsel in distress or a male character with boobs. In fact, the film acknowledges the existence of inequality between the sexes. “Full Metal Bitch” is scrawled all over posters of Rita, alluding to the disparity between the treatment of male and female heroes. Men who get stuff done are heralded as badasses, while women who get shit done are deemed bitches. This acknowledgment of the double standard was subtle but effective.
While the film’s first half was thoroughly entertaining, the later half is a lot less engaging. It lacked a climactic, grand set piece that we’ve usually come to expect of these types of films. Because of the underwritten characters and lack of back story, there was very little emotional investment to be had in their quests. Sure, we want to root for the protagonists, but there was never a real sense of hopelessness or desperation that compelled audiences to cheer for victory. The ending was also a bit more abrupt, and perhaps slightly predictable. Despite this, Edge of Tomorrow is still worth checking out, as Emily Blunt and Tom Cruise do put on a great show. The film is a solid popcorn flick with some chuckle-worthy scenes and intense action sequences. Be sure to download Christophe Beck’s fantastic score for it, too.
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014)
If you asked me what my favorite part was of Bryan Singer’s much buzzed about X-Men: Days of Future Past, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you. If I thought really, really hard about it (perhaps pressing my index and middle finger to my right temple and mustering my most constipated expression would help), it could be that I felt an enormous amount of glee at the audacious (and rather ingenious) move by this film in essentially erasing the clusterfuck that was X-Men: The Last Stand, a film which I have repeatedly tried to block from my memory to no avail. It’s a smart move. After all, everything that has come to pass after X2: United was disappointing (yes, even X-Men: First Class). It seemed only right that a studio determined to mimic Marvel’s success with their superhero franchises would want to reset the audience’s expectations. And now here we are, with the newest installment from the X-Men franchise, and I find that the bubblegum stuck to the bottom of my shoe is far more interesting.
The story is set in a future where mutants and the humans who aid them are being persecuted by sentinels, creations of extremist scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) as part of his effort to stay what he thought would be the inevitable extinction of humans in the face of the the clearly genetically superior mutants. In this future, so few mutants are left, and we are introduced to what will be the core of the X-Men: Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat (Ellen Page), Blink (Fan Bingbing), Bobby Drake/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Bishop (Omar Sy), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Sunspot (Adan Canto) and Warpath (Booboo Stewart). They have survived as long as they have because Kitty can send someone’s consciousness into the future as sort of an intel-gathering expedition, bringing them back in time to warn the X-Men of impending sentinel attacks. But it’s only a temporary fix, and at this point the X-Men are only surviving, seemingly without any plan to defeat the sentinels and secure their future’s race. Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Storm (Halle Berry) and Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) join the party and come up with a plan for Kitty to send Logan back to the past to stop the creation of the sentinels. It must be Logan, we are told, because his regenerative powers can handle the trauma of time travel. Logan must convince the X-Men of the past - which include young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), young Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) and Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) - to stop Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Trask (which becomes the catalyst that greenlights the sentinel program).
Following so far? It’s a fairly straightforward concept that’s been done before in films like The Terminator, so executing it seems like a pretty simple task, but when you have a cast of 20+ superheroes, things can get a little dicy. When Logan arrives in the past (the 70s, to be exact), he sees that his work is cut out for him, because the X-Men have never been further apart. For the most part, the film stays in the past, with Logan painstakingly trying to convince a disillusioned Charles Xavier that the fate of the mutant race lies in his hands. The story occasionally jumps to the future, as the mutants there hold their ground against the siege of sentinels. The condensed version of this story doesn’t seem so bad. It is, after all, based on an actual storyline from the X-Men comic books (although in the original plot, Kitty was supposed to be the time traveling heroine, not Logan). The execution, however, wasn’t the best, with the film lacking in emotional oomph and any real excitement. The story also went at a strange pace, with some parts feeling incredibly slow and uneventful, while others seemed rushed and incomprehensible. It lacked a sense of urgency and desperation that would have helped highlight the mutant struggle. While it was great to see the classic X-Men thematic emphasis of opposing viewpoints between Magneto and Professor X, overall I felt that the film suffered from a haggard energy, never making any big impressions or challenging the audience in any way. The most touching part of the whole series remains, by far, Jean Grey’s sacrifice at the end of X2, and since then nothing has managed to outclass or outweigh that image.
Read on for more (but be warned: possible spoilers under the cut).
Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is a return to classic monster movie storytelling. The much-awaited Hollywood remake seemed to learn much from the disastrous 1998 Roland Emmerich film, relying less on bombast and more on suspense and build-up. All that, however, wouldn’t have mattered if there was no pay-off in the end. And Godzilla pays off in a big way. The iconic character gets the star treatment in this film, and quite rightly steals the show. If only the rest of the film lived up to his greatness.
It’s easy to see how a relatively unknown director like Edwards got the challenging task of remaking this monstrous franchise. His 2010 film Monsters, which he directed, wrote and provided visual effects for, proved that he had a unique grasp of the power of suspense. Monsters was effective because of its interesting use of the protagonists’ perspective, emphasizing it as the lens with which the audience sees the story through. He also understood that in order for something larger than life to work, it needed to be grounded with relatable characters and a simple, resonant theme. Edwards brought these same sensibilities to Godzilla, employing a tactic that involved numerous shots from civilian’s-eye-views, such as a shot of Godzilla from inside a car, an office building… there was one shot from the tires underneath an airplane - anything that could illustrate the awesome scale of the beast in comparison to the minuscule size of humans.
Edwards also takes a page right out of the Steven Spielberg handbook, borrowing inspiration from iconic monster movies like Jaws and Jurassic Park. As you might recall, Jaws was incredibly effective because it capitalized on the audience’s fear of the unknown. Along with a great, now-iconic score from John Williams and teasing imagery that let audiences know that a shark fin meant danger, Jaws changed the way horror was told on the big screen. With Jurassic Park, Spielberg took the success of Jaws and turned the story of a dinosaur theme park out of absurdity, transforming it into an exciting, visually engaging, digestible film that also manages to say something about man’s hubris. Edwards tries to mimic some of that Spielberg juju, teasing the audience with glimpses of Godzilla until the very end, when he is unleashed in all his glory, much to the viewers’ delights. Spielberg, however, managed to make Jaws such an iconic character for something that is largely unseen for the majority of the movie, while at the same time making the human characters interesting enough for the audience to want to invest in. Edwards doesn’t quite pull off this balancing act. Godzilla is clearly the star of the film, with every scene he is in downright astonishing, and everything else seemed inconsequential. It’s only right; the film isn’t called Godzilla for nothing. However, what was supposed to be the grounding element of the film - the human characters - fell flat.
(no spoilers under the cut)
UNDER THE SKIN (2014)
Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is like nothing you’ve ever seen.
In the film adaptation of Michel Faber’s best-selling sci-fi novel, Scarlett Johansson plays an otherworldly being on the prowl on the streets of Scotland for unsuspecting young men who are only too eager to jump into a van with her. Once they are unable to escape her clutches, they dissolve into this abyss, seemingly consumed by Scarlett’s voracious alien appetite. It’s this routine of picking up and consuming men that populates the first half of the movie. As the story progresses, Scarlett’s character starts venturing outside of her routine of subsistence living. Sustenance is no longer primary, understanding what it means to be human suddenly intrigues her. While Johansson is literally a man-eating alien in this film, don’t let that premise fool you. Glazer’s approach to this story was anything but pedestrian. The English director, known for his eerie, off-kilter work that includes Sexy Beast and 2004’s Birth, took nearly a decade to finish this project and the end result is quite stunning. This film takes a most unusual yet fascinating approach in attempting to answer man’s greatest riddle: what is the meaning of life? The answer may not be 42, but I assure you, it is just as profound.
While some may be perplexed by the film’s sparse dialogue or the deliberately abstract quality of some of its scenes, in many ways this was a celebration of the visual and visceral style of storytelling. Under the Skin isn’t just a movie, it’s an experience. Once you leave the theater, you’re suddenly bombarded with overwhelming emotions that you may find difficult to put into words. Your mind is racing, unsure of how to comprehend what you just saw, yet you remember acutely how you felt during certain scenes, with some moments staying with you even well after you’ve left the theater. This is precisely how effective Glazer was in luring viewers into this rather simple yet endlessly fascinating and eye-opening tale of discovery, both on a micro and macro level. On the one hand we have the tale of an outsider looking in, viewing people under a microscope and marveling at all the things that make us human. On the other side of the spectrum is a beautifully told story about becoming, self-awareness, and an almost terrifying understanding of human nature.
A story that was both complex and yet shockingly simple could only have been effective with the right actress at the center of it all, and Under the Skin is perhaps Johansson at her very best. She brought such great dimension to her character, showing impressive range with her acting that was subtle but impactful. There was a childlike innocence to her character that made it easy for audiences to sympathize and empathize with her, despite her mysterious, inexplicable origins. Viewers are never told of her purpose, and her behavior is never fully explained, yet we feel a kinship with her. The evolution of her character is really well done in this film. We see her grow from someone who initially seems to only exist for the sole purpose of self-preservation. She hunts these men for food, essentially, and nothing else. As the story progresses, however, she starts to explore outside the realm of merely surviving, forced by circumstances outside of her control. While driving around, she gets stuck in this impenetrable fog. The limited visibility hinders her quest of prowling for hitchhikers, so she pulls over and just starts aimlessly walking. She meets a man who is hospitable to her during this time of need. He takes her in and they start spending time with each other doing leisurely things, which comes as a surprise to her because she is so used to merely devouring men for food. She begins to see that humans don’t just live to eat, they live to enjoy the company of others. When the two of them share a moment and things get a little hot and heavy, another realization hits her: humans don’t just have sex for procreation; they can have sex for pleasure. At a restaurant, she orders a delectable slice of decadent cake. She stares at it, seemingly unsure of whether this even qualifies as food. There’s a very specific reason she orders dessert, and it’s because it’s usually a part of the meal that is largely unnecessary, and the one we normally eat for the sole reason that it is pleasurable and we are merely indulging our whims. She takes a bite and immediately spits it out. Perhaps she has grown so used to eating for survival that her palate isn’t suited for anything else, especially not leisurely dining. So Johansson’s whole character journey is about discovering that there is more to human life than merely existing. Survival is still primary, but how we cope with the brevity of life is through experiences such as enjoying the company of others and indulging in desires and not just needs.
In this day and age, audiences seem to have a lot of things handed to them when watching a movie - whether it’s information imparted through exhaustive, lengthy exposition, or a barrage of sound, special effects and other cinematic paraphernalia that assault the senses. Viewers have grown accustomed to stories that are wrapped up neatly in a little bow at the end of a film, or a character’s motivations explained at great length, that when presented with a tale that is so open to interpretation and so defiant in its challenging of traditional storytelling, it comes as a complete shock. Puzzlement was certainly what Glazer was going for, but not the kind that leaves viewers frustrated and shortchanged. His minimalistic approach to Under the Skin's story was intentional because he understood the value of withholding information from the audience. The result was refreshing, and actually quite pleasurable, because not having all the answers yet feeling a sense of understanding towards the story, without necessarily feeling accomplishment over having finished a film, is an interesting place to be for a viewer.
The sound design of this film was really the glue that held the film together, however. Mica Levi’s haunting score was a character all to itself. It was foreboding yet alluring, drawing the viewer in just like Scarlett lured her prey into her clutches. While the film already had such great atmosphere, it was the music that really served as the intellectual and emotional anchor for the audience. When words may not be enough (or completely necessary, as in the case of this film), music is more than ample as a substitute, because the marriage of sight and sound can be so much more dramatic than any verbal explanation.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014)
Not even the adorable goo goo eyes exchanged between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone could make Marc Webb’s Spider-Man sequel amazing. But there is at least one thing worth celebrating: Peter Parker finally has the good sense to use Google instead of Bing.
Despite the promise of a talented cast such as the two mentioned above, returning champ Sally Field, and the addition of individually magnetic actors Jamie Foxx and Dane DeHaan, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 missed the mark completely. It’s a damn shame, because its story had quite a lot of potential, but writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman couldn’t seem to decide what they wanted this movie to be and threw in everything and the kitchen sink. This resulted in a bloated, noisy affair that suffered from one too many villains and, worst of all, a bit of an identity crisis for the webbed superhero. While its predecessor, the largely unnecessary but somewhat entertaining The Amazing Spider-Man, wasn’t exactly worth writing home about either, the sequel continues to prove that this franchise reboot is less a celebration of everyone’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, and more about making money the laziest, least creative way possible. Why lazy and uncreative? Because the writers changed the characters’ origin stories for the sole reason that Sony wanted to jump on the Marvel Cinematic Universe bandwagon (more on that later), even though they haven’t done enough to set this up for success. Because this film felt sloppy, squandering what could have been a potentially impactful storyline in favor of showy, over-the-top antics (I’m looking at you, Dr. Kafka). Because its musical score was so awful, I am forced to use hyperbole and declare that it nearly made my ears bleed. Because the addition of the X-Men: Days of Future Past post-credits teaser was tacky and the marketing equivalent of trying to make “fetch” happen (spoiler alert: it’s never gonna happen, FOX and Sony). These are merely a few of the offenses made by Marc Webb’s disappointing sequel.
While the film was visually impressive and featured elaborate action set pieces, and the love story between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy was fun to observe as a third wheel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2's mistakes were egregious enough that they overshadowed these high points. The most glaring error was the lack of cohesion in the script. Not only were there too many things going on, but they seemed to be completely unrelated to each other. The story jumped from Peter Parker’s (Garfield) on-again-off-again romance with Gwen Stacy (Stone), to his brief rekindling of friendship with heir to OsCorp throne Harry Osborn (DeHaan), to uncovering the secrets behind his parents’ mysterious deaths, to battling Blue Man Group wannabe Electro (Foxx)…there was a thing with Rhino (played by Paul Giamatti), a plot point involving Aunt May that was introduced and quickly forgotten…All this occurred probably only within the first hour of the film. These individual elements worked well in isolation and as mentioned before had tremendous potential, but Orci and Kurtzman failed to weave them together. The writing duo seemed to be making things up as the film went along, with only a vague sense of direction and a plan B that consisted of “Let’s just write ourselves out of this situation!”
Warning: 1) spoilers to follow, 2) this is one of my more rant-ridden reviews, so proceed with caution, 3) this thing is hella long. I let my nerd rage loose on this one, so if you don’t like to read, well, that can’t be helped, really.
A naked young woman emerges from the waves, like a scene out of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. She is a mirage of beauty and warmth right now, as she frolics by the sun-soaked shore, but as weeks and months pass, she ends up cold and dead in a ditch. The circumstances of her demise begin a mystery in Agnès Varda’s Vagabond, only to unfold as told through the eyes of those who encountered her on the road. It is learned that she calls herself Mona, a name whose significance isn’t lost on the viewer, as in Greek it means “solitary”. And solitude is merely one of the many subjects in Varda’s fascinating masterpiece of a woman’s life on the road.
From people’s first recollections of Mona, it is clear that she is regarded as somewhat of a phenomenon. The way they talk about her, with equal parts confusion and fascination, makes it seem as though the goddess Venus herself descended from the heavens and lived for a time, at once incomprehensible and seemingly inconsequential, among us lowly mortals. It is learned that she touched so many lives, whether she meant to or not, and as she floated from town to town with her trusty backpack, she unwittingly affected those around her with her devil-may-care attitude. Vagabond is a story of a particular kind of have-not, and its exploration of female homelessness hasn’t been portrayed in quite the same way before.
Mona (played by Sandrine Bonnaire), unkempt and unbridled, is a representation of many things. It has been said that Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus offers two interpretations of the goddess of love and beauty: That she was an earthly goddess who aroused humans to physical love, or one who inspired intellectual love in them (x). Vagabond offers both interpretations with the character of Mona, who fits this description to a T. She is at once alluring to the men who pass her by, and at the same time extremely confounding to those who try to understand her. In a way, this is Varda’s attempt to explore the feminine mystique, and to assert that women are complex creatures, capable of a voracity that is so often mistaken for hysteria. Society seems to want so badly to put women in a simple, pretty box that is easy to understand and devoid of multiple interpretations. This is especially clear in a scene where a man describes Mona as revolting, as she stumbles drunk and disoriented around a train station. A woman should not be acting this way, it seems. She should not be sleeping outdoors, either, and least of all by choice. One elderly woman chalks the whole situation up to Mona simply being unable to find a suitable husband.
And therein lies the subtle social commentary that makes Vagabond so interesting. The whole story is an enigma to its characters and the audience because it is so unusual. There are countless stories of male vagabonds, journeying across countries and continents in search of their raison d’être. Where are the stories for women? Do they not exist, or at least exist in fewer quantities or prominence, because society believes women do not have such existential crises? Are our lives simpler because if patriarchal society is to believed, all we have to do is pop out babies and the rest are just meaningless details? For instance, in one scene, a woman named Yolande expresses her frustration at the passionless relationship she and her boyfriend have. Her boyfriend Paulo just thinks she’s being hysterical, but the woman is yearning for fire, excitement, for something other than what this man has in mind for them. Dismissing female wants and desires as trivial has been the motif of many stories, and Vagabond challenges these ideas with a character who exists without much regard for the pressures society puts on her as a woman. And it’s frightening, especially for the men Mona encounters, to be so inexplicable. “Do I scare you?” Mona asks a bespectacled man who seems troubled by her wild, untamed hair. The truth is, her physical non-conformity is the least of his worries. It’s her refusal to allow herself to be categorized in an easily digestible manner that perturbs him.
Mona Bergeron is a complex character precisely because she’s hard to box in. The people she encounters during her travels are afraid of the absolute freedom she represents - freedom from rules, relationships and the romantic ideas that some people have about living on the road. Mona is no hippie flower child. She’s not adorned in flowing maxi dresses with daises in her hair, throwing peace signs about. She’s lived a life on the road for reasons she has chosen not to reveal, a secrecy that makes her character even more intriguing. The audience is never told of her background; in fact, Mona is an unreliable protagonist because she states up front and quite flatly to those who interrogate her that she simply lies when asked about her history. There’s something liberating about a character like that. Normally a character’s lack of back story would repel audiences because of our inherent need to comprehend. Yet Varda makes this work in Vagabond because Mona’s experiences serve as a mirror for society, and not necessarily a contribution to a character study. Varda has accomplished something amazing with Vagabond. She has managed to allow audiences a window into this brief life of an aimless wanderer, who actually turns out to be a means with which we can discuss issues of conformity and femininity.
"It seems to me she came from the sea," one woman recalls of Mona, again bringing forth parallels between the young protagonist and Botticelli’s Venus. The comparison is quite poignant and fitting. At the end of the day, whether Mona was the goddess Venus or not is insignificant, because all she ever wanted to do was be left to her own devices. To exist and not be judged for the choices she makes, may these choices be chain-smoking or refusing to bathe. Art aficionados and historians will always debate true interpretations of The Birth of Venus, just as we continue to argue about women’s place in a modern society. But maybe Venus just is, just as Mona just is - both women, and women can’t be put in boxes. To borrow the title of a Jean-Luc Godard film, “une femme est une femme” - a woman is a woman. And as Mona emphatically says in the film, sometimes "C’est ça!" - "That’s it!" No explanation, no elaborate or fantastic back story. And it should be good enough.