Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Under The Skin Review

Released back in March, Jonathan Glazer’s latest film Under the Skin is one that has been praised by critics but panned by “cinema-goers”. I’m not a big fan of overly-pretentious crap that tries too hard. Either I lack the patience or the capacity to read into ambiguous shots of nothing and drawn out sequences that revolve around random imagery and convoluted editing. So Under the Skin’s theatrical trailer didn’t especially sell me. That being said, the premise of an alien “succubus” prowling and luring the simple-minded folk of Glasgow to be processed into a delicacy back home, is one that is hard to overlook. And then there’s the whole “never judge a book by…..” proverb which I’ve unfortunately forgotten to abide by a few times. 

Originally a book written by Michel Faber, Under The Skin had a rather turbulent pre-production span. The screenplay changed hands between numerous writers and underwent constant tweaking too. Taking a step back from the uncomfortable detail and ferocity of the book, Jonathan Glazer and screenwriter Walter Campbell have maintained the shocking and unsettled nature of the novel, but have used the visual essence of the film to create a “dreamscape” exploring the realms of surrealism, ambience and ambiguity. This might sound pretentious enough, but Under The Skin remains an “experience” above all else. Yes there’s a narrative and a basic three act structure, but to categorise it would be a challenge. Loosely blending elements from horror, sci-fi, thriller and drama, even after watching it twice I still can’t determine it’s genre.  

Scarlett Johansson’s performance is one of subtly. While I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s “iconic”, as some have commended, she proves to be an enchanting temptress, managing to convey the alien’s changing temperament towards humanity and “her” occupation. While her blank expressions, and failed concept of human interaction can be slightly awkward at times, she strangely builds a sympathetic angle towards her situation. That being said, there really isn’t a true “character” in the film. The supporting cast, which consists of a mixture of professional actors and the actual “hapless victims“ from the streets of Glasgow, don’t leave a lasting impression. But that’s to be expected with a plot of an extraterrestrial stalking young males to their cold and isolated doom. 

Glazer has employed both atmosphere and tension to create a production that’s captivating and engaging. Under The Skin presents this through both its soundtrack and imagery. Mica Levi’s soundtrack is one that further adds to the general unease of the film. The three note melody of long stringed notes and altered pitch, mixed with plodding percussion provides a hypnotic trance that sends chills down the spine. The entire soundtrack for that matter, creates a surreal and rather uncomfortable atmosphere that matches perfectly with the film’s dreamy cinematography and the actual events that take place. The track “Love” perfectly demonstrates the flowing and transforming nature of the story and personality, with a blend of drawn out inflections in tone and intensity. 

The overriding aura of pretentious filmmaking is one that the film narrowly avoids.  The use of overly long, panning and random wide shots are still here, but a wise level of restraint has been employed. The varied and beautiful landscapes of Scotland are tinted into a dreary haze that conceals the hidden disposition and dangers in each location. And the visual styling towards the actual “harvesting-process” is simply stunning. My only issue is the lack of explanation. We easily comprehend the basic story the film presents, but it becomes overly difficult and cryptic to fully understand the events, especially in the third act. I like a film with ambiguity, but there’s a certain point where it can cause a loss in focus or purpose and Under The Skin’s ambiguity is near fatal. While I myself was still able to produce a smile as the credits rolled, I’m not sure others will share the same admiration and sentiment. 

Under The Skin will undoubtably be on my favourites list of 2014. While I can understand many’s frustration towards the film’s pretentiousness, I feel that it just about avoids “flying up its own arse”. A strong performance by Scarlett Johansson, and the film’s hypnotic shifts to the senses, Under The Skin is an experience that left me deeply satisfied but slightly traumatised. There are easy ways to turn this concept into an action film or an X-Files episode (I’m sure there’s probably been one). But Glazer has crafted something that looks and sounds distinct and entrancing. With an unnerving soundtrack and some gorgeous cinematography, Under The Skin isn’t one to take lightly. 

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Revisiting Films of 2012

I’ve made it my mission to “end” every year with a “Favourites Films of the Year” list. Yet forming it on the basis of UK release dates has become very difficult and in a wider sense, has lessened the relevance of the list itself. Therefore this year I’m going to include films that were released in the US in 2013. However I felt that it was necessary to highlight and add to my previous “Best films of 2012” under this new criteria. So these are films that would undoubtably have been placed on my Top 10 of 2012 if I’d followed US release dates. 

Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning picture The Hurt Locker brought her name back into the public eye and presented her with her first major awards. Continuing her exploration into the conflict in the Middle East, Zero Dark Thirty proved to be another well-received and controversial addition to award nominations. Following fictional character “Maya”, the film explores her insane commitment and struggle in her hunt for Osama Bin Laden. Even with the uncertainty surrounding the depiction of the actual events, Zero Dark Thirty was an engrossing and intense watch. While its apparent “pro-torture” stance created controversy amongst politicians, critics and the public, the film was a determined and daring accomplishment that continued to show the boldness of Kathryn Bigelow’s direction. Bigelow also reiterated her vision and the ability to get the best from her leads. Like Jeremy Renner’s outstanding performance in The Hurt Locker, Jessica Chastain sells this entire film and thoroughly deserved her Golden Globe Award. Indirectly and directly suffering from Al Qaeda’s action and the sheer magnitude of her mission, Chastain managed to capture the stress and resolute personality of her character. With sophisticated editing and diverse approach to cinematography, Zero Dark Thirty just pipped Argo for my favourite “Middle-East thriller” of 2012.  

Django Unchained 

As you may know, Quentin Tarantino’s recent form hasn’t really impressed me. To be brutally honest, neither has much of his filmography. Reservoir Dogs still remains my personal favourite of his. Yet Django Unchained offered something more than typical-Tarantino. Remaining engrained in his love affair with grindhouse/ exploitation cinema and spaghetti-westerns, Django proved to be an entertaining and strangely thought-provoking view of slavery and race. Uncompromising in its depiction of violence, racism and slavery, Tarantino’s writing and direction offered a sensory-overload that had bags of style, personality and charm. Leonardo Di Caprio and Christoph Waltz stole the show presenting the best characters to grace a Tarantino screen, and that’s a huge statement. Over-the-top, yes, but both left a lasting impression that was hard not to be mesmerised by. Subsequently their impact on the overall film was undoubtably felt after certain circumstances arrived, leading to the last 20 minute feeling rather redundant. I’m sure that if you were to do a serious breakdown of Django Unchained, then you would be able to compare and highlight massive similarities to his previous works, but I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed it and how “refreshing” it was. Good job Tarantino. 

Silver Linings Playbook 

I rarely choose to go and see “Rom-Coms”, yet David O’Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook managed to blend the difficult notions of mental illness and comedy with some fantastic performances. Sharply written, O’Russell didn’t necessarily stretch the boundaries or tropes of the genre but still offered a “feel-good” film with a lot of charm and heart. Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper did a terrific job both in individual capacities and as a fictional “couple”. Cooper has thankfully found is range of recent, and I think this is undoubtably his bes. His troubled psychology and frequent bouts of frustration conflict with his desire to get control of his life and find some sort of serenity. Lawrence, the winner of the Best Actress Oscar in 2013, really shined with her spontaneous performance that highlighted her sudden development and diversity as an actress. Both created a spiky rapport that saw their relationship constantly on edge yet remaining endearing. The supporting cast deserves a lot of credit with the likes of Jackie Weaver and even Chris Tucker offering notable performances. And De Niro doesn't do half-bad either. Silver Linings Playbook offered another surprisingly entertaining affair in “2012” that firmly showcased both Bradley Cooper’s and Jennifer Lawrence’s ability to play. While I don’t think it would have been in the top half of my list, David O’Russell continues to impress with his recent form, The Fighter being my favourite of his. 

Sunday, 19 January 2014

RespawningCouch Podcast: Final Episode: The Best Films of 2013/Early 2014

We end this "experiment" with a "Best of" list that deals with US release dates. 

Thank you for your continued support and listening. Adios and Cheers. 

Monday, 13 January 2014

Best of 2013: Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock still remains one of my favourite games of all-time. Melding an intense and engrossing story with an phenomenal sense of atmosphere, exploring the underwater utopia of Rapture and the plight of its creator Andrew Ryan was an incredible experience. After a rather disappointing sequel and a series of undisclosed delays, Bioshock Infinite gained critical and unanimous appraisal on its release back in March. 

Infinite continues Irrational Game’s prowess in visual story-telling with another stellar narrative journey that further explores fairy-tale sentiment within the context of a complex commentary on American ideology pre-WWI. Set in the early 1910s, the story follows Booker DeWitt’s who has been “hired” to retrieve a young woman, Elizabeth, from the floating city of Columbia. Along the way, like the events of Rapture, the player uncovers the secrets, the friction and conflict revolving around Elizabeth’s character and Columbia itself. Like it’s true predecessor, Infinite is an engaging story start to finish. What’s particularly impressive is Irrational’s strict notion of ambiguity and discovery. While the player is channeled down a narrow, linear path, Infinite manages to generate a strong sense of breadth and wonder. Thematically, the game’s plot and setting aspire to engage the audience with a multiplicity of -isms. Whether it be cultism, racism, nationalism or extremism, it is sure to address the socio-political issues of American society during the period, especially those relating to the “Founding Fathers”, Manifest Destiny and patriotism. While the game can and has already been broadly and monotonously critiqued by many, the game’s atmosphere and artistic endeavour bring this world to life. 

Yet the crucial element of Infinite’s success is the character of Elizabeth. Like my love for Ellie in The Last of Us, Elizabeth stems from a similar set of circumstances and situations. A “Rapunzel-esque princess” locked in a tower, we are slowly revealed her ordeals/ torment and discovery outside the walls of her cell. Exposed to the world through literature and that of her captors’ boundaries, Elizabeth reacts realistically towards the true sights and sounds of Columbia and to the events that are occurring around her. Voice actor Courtnee Draper really does an amazing job at portraying this charming and complex personality. Her exaggerated body movements and facial expressions offer a glimmer of constant humanity in a world succumbed to hate and greed. Additionally she’s an important part of the gameplay. With ammo in short supply, she regularly throws you bullets, weapons, salts and money. You really get a sense of her importance to your survival, leading to the one or two instances when she’s elsewhere being increasingly unnerving and unbelievably tense.

On a technical level Infinite looks and sounds spectacular, more so in the PC version. With it’s unique art style, superb soundtrack and expansive colour palette, Columbia is a distinct and vibrant setting that evolves as the player and the story progresses. The key is atmosphere, and the game’s ability to capture the “birth of a nation” ideals, and the fractured personas of Columbia really sets the unparalleled tone of the game. While playing it as a “game” can be a rather laborious affair, Irrational Games managed to fix some of the major issues I had with its previous releases. Dual wielding vigor powers and gunplay is a fluid and satisfying set of actions, but nothing terribly unique or inventive. It’s slightly unfortunately that the variety of vigors seem irrelevant after the Possession and Shock Jockey powers are introduced. The Skyhook mechanic also failed to live up to the hype. But strong A.I and some interesting level design help to bring some diversity to the proceedings. 

Bioshock Infinite impressed me more as an experience rather than as a game. Irrational Games poured its heart and technical soul into creating an impressive narrative with a fierce personality that would capture and engulf the imagination and enthusiasm of its audience. And they undoubtably succeeded. Who knows where the next instalment will take us?