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Now Playing: Under the Skin

Under the Skin
dir: Jonathan Glazer, UK/USA, 2013
Rating: 9.6

undertheskin The bottom line: You don’t want to wake up, do you?

Now playing at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema in Chicago is Under the Skin, the third and best feature film to date by British writer/director Jonathan Glazer. Based on an acclaimed science-fiction novel by Michel Faber, which I haven’t read but with which the filmmakers have apparently taken many liberties in adapting, the end result is an exciting, disturbing, sexy, visually ravishing, thought-provoking and wholly singular filmgoing experience that stands as my favorite movie of the year so far. (While that may not sound like high praise in early April, keep in mind that I’ve already seen what I would consider an unusual number of great or near-great films in 2014 including: The Strange Little Cat, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, Nymphomaniac Vol. 1, Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian), Journey to the West, Gloria and The Grand Budapest Hotel. While Glazer made his name as a director of music videos and television commercials in the 1990s, his subsequent features Sexy Beast (2000) and Birth (2004), notable for their meticulous attention to detail as well as their flirtation with “big ideas,” have caused some critics to favorably compare him to none other than Stanley Kubrick. Glazer himself appeared to encourage such comparisons by including what seemed like more than a few winking references to the master’s work in his underrated and misunderstood second feature (critical appraisal of Birth was unfortunately drowned out at the time of its release by a non-controversy involving a scene where Nicole Kidman’s character took a bath with a pre-adolescent boy). Under the Skin both validates the Kubrick comparisons as well as renders them irrelevant: it’s a visionary work of art in its own right that doesn’t look or sound like anything other than a “Jonathan Glazer movie,” and that should be higher praise than comparing it to motion pictures by great directors from the past.

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Perhaps what is most impressive about Under the Skin is the way that Glazer, much more than in his previous movies, tells this story more through the images than the dialogue, rendering what little the characters do say as secondary or unimportant. By contrast, Mica Levi’s brilliant avant-garde score, which mixes metronomic percussion with what sounds like an unnerving loop of a wailing viola, is essential in establishing the film’s unique tone: the ethereal score seamlessly blends with the real-world effects on the soundtrack (it is difficult at times to distinguish music from effects) in order to bring viewers closer to the consciousness of an extraterrestrial protagonist. Under the Skin audaciously follows the exploits of an unnamed alien disguised as a human (the press kit refers to her as “Laura” but no one calls her that in the movie and none of the characters are given names in the closing credits) who arrives on earth — Scotland, to be precise — with the intention of seducing and killing men for vague, nefarious purposes. It is implied that these murders are part of an organ-harvesting scheme although Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell apparently chose to downplay this aspect of the plot as it originally appeared in the novel — a wise choice in my opinion. Instead, the film sticks uncomfortably close to the sensory impressions of this alien character (Scarlett Johansson, almost unrecognizable in black bangs, fur coat and stonewashed jeans) as she experiences life on an unfamiliar planet. Glazer’s ability to capture the modern world as it might be seen and heard through alien eyes and ears is exhilarating; the early sections of Under the Skin contain a fair number of scenes of her driving around Glasgow in a nondescript white van, trying to pick up lone men on the street. Astonishingly, most of these scenes were shot with hidden cameras — with the male “characters” being unaware that they were either interacting with the famous Johansson, who sports a credible English accent, or indeed appearing in a movie at all (release forms were obtained after the scenes were shot).

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To give away more of the plot would be a crime but I would like to note that the film’s most tantalizing aspect may be the way in which the alien seems to develop a conscience after she kills a surfer on a rocky beach. This is also, crucially, the only murder that is explicitly shown in the movie. All of the other murders are represented symbolically by showing naked men walking after the scantily clad or nude alien on a pitch-black set and slowly sinking into a pool of inky liquid while she remains on solid ground a few feet in front of them. (This brilliant feat of engineering also provides some of the most spectacular visuals of any sci-fi film of recent years.) The alien soon begins to exhibit more human characteristics, from falling down in the street to showing mercy to a potential victim who is facially disfigured to allowing her physical appearance to become increasingly grimy. Glazer’s objective here, I think, is not dissimilar from what Robert Bresson achieved so majestically in Au Hasard Balthazar in 1966. Much like how Bresson had a donkey function as a blank slate upon which the vices of mankind are imprinted, Glazer presents an alien succubus as a kind of crazy mirror for some of the basest instincts of humanity; it is more than a little sad that so many men seem so eager to jump, for no good reason, into a van being driven by a total stranger — even if that stranger happens to look like Scarlett Johansson. The casting of Johansson, however, is precisely Glazer’s masterstroke. While she may not be a great actress, she is a bona fide movie star for a reason, and never before has she used/allowed her star persona to be used so intelligently as here. Late in the film, the alien is stripped of its human form and stares at the face of Johansson that it has been wearing like a mask, a haunting moment that can be seen as a comment on image-making and celebrity. This one brief shot in Under the Skin accomplishes something that thousands of hours of gossip-news television shows cannot: it makes one sympathize with, indeed want to weep for, anyone bearing the burden of wearing celebrity skin.

The trailer for Under the Skin can be viewed via YouTube below:

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Happy Easter from White City Cinema

How do you like your cinematic Jesus? I prefer mine with a Marxist slant.

matthew

Happy Easter!


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Psycho (Hitchcock)
2. Metalhead (Bragason)
3. The World of Goopi and Bagha (Ranade)
4. Slither (Gunn)
5. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica)
6. Deep Cover (Duke)
7. Night Moves (Penn)
8. Extasis (Barroso)
9. Nymphomaniac Vol. 2 (Von Trier)
10. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi)


Now Playing: Nymphomaniac Volumes One and Two

Nymphomaniac: Vol. One and Two
dir: Lars Von Trier, Denmark/Germany, 2013
Rating: 9.0

nymphomaniac

The bottom line: as my man Nick Fraccaro says, it’s “Kill Bill directed by Andrei Tarkovsky.” Whatever impression the sound of such an incongruous mash-up makes on you will probably be a good indicator of how you feel about this batshit-crazy movie.

Now playing at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema in Chicago as exclusive engagements — as well as via video on demand — are both parts of Lars Von Trier’s controversial four-hour epic Nymphomaniac. While the film generated positive critical notices in Von Trier’s native Denmark last year (where both volumes opened on Christmas Day), as well as at the Berlin International Film Festival in February (the site of the official world premiere of the full five-and-a-half-hour version), the response by both American critics and audiences alike has been strangely muted; the trade papers here have even referred to it as a “flop.” (Don’t blame me. I took a large class of college students on two separate field trips to see both parts.) Whether this has anything to do with prudish Americans being uneasy about the marriage of explicit sex and commercial narrative movies, as some commentators have speculated — at least as a theatrical experience; I have a hunch that the VOD returns on this are probably quite robust — the way the film has been curiously ignored in the U.S. is unfortunate: Nymphomaniac is, for my money, Von Trier’s best work since at least Dancer in the Dark in 2000. Among its many virtues, intellectual as well as visceral, Nymphomaniac is frequently hilarious. Well, at least the first volume is.

nympho

The premise: in an unnamed European country (let’s call it International Co-productionland), a middle-aged sad-sack named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgaard) finds a bruised and battered middle-aged woman named Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lying unconscious in an alley and brings her to his home to recuperate. After Seligman has provided her with a bed and served her a cup of tea, Joe recounts to him her sad and sordid life story, which Von Trier presents as a series of flashback vignettes revolving around her sex addiction (Volume One is broken into five “chapters” and Volume Two is broken into three). While Joe feels that each of these episodes illustrates that she is a “bad person,” Seligman, a seemingly asexual bibliophile, frequently rejects her claims by using his vast storehouse of knowledge to pose counterarguments. These framing sequences allow Von Trier to, among other things, draw correlations between sex and fly fishing and explore concepts relating to everything from math to botany to the polyphonic music of Johann Sebastian Bach to the delirium tremens experienced by Edgar Allan Poe in his final days. Amusingly, Nymphomaniac is not so much about sex then as it is about finding patterns in the universe, the nature of storytelling, and the need the human mind has to impose order and meaning. Seligman’s disbelief at a coincidence that occurs in Joe’s story towards the end of the first volume is very clever — and self-reflexive — in this respect: she actually asks him if her story would be better or worse without such a narrative contrivance.

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Of course, this being a Lars Von Trier film, the second volume ends up meting out much punishment upon the already long-suffering heroine. (Neither those who claim Von Trier’s obsessive focus on female martyrdom marks him as a misogynist nor those who claim the same quality makes him a feminist are likely to change their mind about what he’s up to here.) But Volume Two also initially feels like an anti-climax (pun intended), largely because the surprising humor of the first part is gone: there is nothing in Volume Two, for instance, to compare with Uma Thurman’s hilariously melodramatic monologue as a housewife dealing with an unfaithful husband. (Was Thurman channeling some leftover/repressed rage from when former husband Ethan Hawke strayed? It’s certainly the best work she’s ever done.) Also, it must be said that it feels as though something in the film dies when the effervescent Stacy Martin, a British actress who plays young Joe in Volume One‘s flashback sequences, abruptly departs near the beginning of Volume Two, only to be replaced by the more dour persona of La Gainsbourg. And yet, in the days following my viewing of Volume Two, my appreciation for the achievement as a whole and its provocations has only increased. Have you ever heard a dirty joke with a very long set-up that leads to a very short, sick punchline? Nymphomaniac is a lot like that — only it gets funnier the more you think about it. The critic Keith Uhlich has rightly compared the denouement to that of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.

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In spite of all of Nymphomaniac’s excesses, and its deliberately sprawling and messy nature (Von Trier here is going Tolstoy-wide instead of his usual Dostoevsky-deep), neither volume ever feels overly long. This is perhaps because the film’s form, not just its nonlinear structure but its cornucopia of different visual styles, seems to take its cues from the unbridled and overindulgent personality of its protagonist. But what finally makes Nymphomaniac feel substantial, and not just an empty provocation like, say, Manderlay, is its obviously highly personal nature. While watching Volume One, I felt as if Von Trier had split his personality between Seligman and Joe and was having a long and brutally honest dialogue with himself about his sometimes-dubious status as Europe’s reigning provocateur-auteur. After watching Volume Two, however, I revised this opinion: the most fruitful way to approach Nymphomaniac, I think, is to view Joe as the stand-in for Von Trier and Seligman as a stand-in for Von Trier’s critics. (The tip-off, for me, came in the dialogue exchange about Joe’s use of the word “negro,” which Seligman cautions her is “politically incorrect.”) When viewed in this light, Volume Two‘s inevitably “shocking” conclusion resonates as more than a cynical twist: Seligman reveals himself to be a faux-intellectual wolf-in-sheep’s clothing — like the critic who feigns an air of fairness and objectivity but only to better position himself to fuck you in the end. I’m still chuckling just thinking about it.

You can check out the red-band trailer for Nymphomaniac via YouTube below. But first, just because I think it’s hilarious, I invite you to admire this poster of Udo Kier’s awesome “O face”:

udo


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. In the Time of the Butterflies (Barroso)
2. Afternoon (Schanelec)
3. Mr. Arkadin (Welles)
4. Renaldo and Clara (Dylan)
5. Blade Runner (2007 Final Cut) (Scott)
6. North By Northwest (Hitchcock)
7. Blade Runner (1992 Director’s Cut) (Scott)
8. David Holzman’s Diary (McBride)
9. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks)
10. All the Women (Barroso)


Odds and Ends: The Grand Budapest Hotel and Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, USA/Germany, 2014) – Theatrical Viewing / Rating: 8.4

budapest

In my positive review of Moonrise Kingdom from two years ago, I lamented that something in me always “resisted” the films of Wes Anderson — even while acknowledging that I also liked most of them. I’m therefore happy to report that not only is The Grand Budapest Hotel my favorite Anderson movie to date, it’s also one that sweeps aside all of the prior reservations that I had about his work. While the director’s signature precocious “touches” are all over this (a confectioner’s approach to set and costume design, quick 90-degree pans from one perfectly symmetrical, planimetric composition to another, montage scenes accompanied by faux-Baroque music cues, etc.), The Grand Budapest Hotel devises an ingenious narrative structure that for once completely justifies even the most fanciful aspects of Anderson’s mise-en-scene: the film begins in the present where a little girl is reading a novel that was written in the 1980s by an author who based his fiction on an ostensibly true story he was told in the 1960s by someone who knew firsthand the story’s hero whose real-life exploits took place in the early 1930s. Got that? The Grand Budapest Hotel is a story inside of a story inside of a story inside of a story — with the different “periods” represented being cleverly shot in different aspect ratios that correspond to how we think of movies from those respective eras (i.e., the square Academy ratio for the 1930s, widescreen CinemaScope for the 1960s, and “1.85:1″ for the 1980s and the present).

The true subject of The Grand Budapest Hotel then is storytelling itself, as it also is in Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 (another recent film that employs an elaborate framing device that calls into question the reliability of the narrator). The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s chief narrative — a shaggy-dog story about a hotel concierge, one Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), and his trusty “lobby boy,” Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), solving a murder against the backdrop of a fictional, war-torn European country — resonates through the decades like an absurd cinematic version of the “Chinese whispers” game. The other thing here that feels gratifyingly new is Anderson’s tone of moral seriousness: for all of the ridiculous humor on display (and Fiennes proves himself to be a surprisingly deft physical and verbal comedian), this tall tale grows not only unexpectedly dark but, as fascism ominously encroaches upon the characters, increasingly death-haunted as well. The protagonist of The Grand Budapest Hotel may be a rapscallion with an eye for wealthy older dames (by which I mean octogenarians) but he’s also a fellow of great integrity who understands what things in life are worth sacrificing oneself for. This moral-clarity-in-the-midst-of-screwball-chaos is finally what makes The Grand Budapest Hotel a worthy heir to the films of the great Ernst Lubitsch, its most important cinematic precedents. I can’t wait to see what Anderson does next.

Up to Speed — Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2012) – Streaming

uptospeed

If, like me, you’re waiting with breathless anticipation for the forthcoming release of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which recently wowed critics and audiences alike at the Sundance, Berlin and South By Southwest film festivals, here’s another recent Linklater project you may not be aware of to tide you over: Up to Speed is a quirky travel show consisting of six half-hour episodes created by Texas’s favorite filmmaking son exclusively for the Hulu website in 2012. The premise of the show is that unconventional historian and motormouthed raconteur Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch (still perhaps best known as the subject of the cult 1998 documentary The Cruise) serves as a tour guide of the “monumentally ignored monuments” of America’s greatest cities. I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t direct my readers specifically to the second episode in the series, entitled Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood. This episode, which marks the first time Linklater has ever set down a tripod in my fair city, focuses almost exclusively on the history of Chicago’s considerable role as a leader in the national labor movement. Levitch, who dubs himself a “blue-collar historian,” recounts how Chicago, beginning in the late 19th century, had arguably the most organized labor force in the world and was instrumental in establishing such basic workers’ rights as the eight-hour work day. From there, Levitch — aided by a fair number of amusing “talking” buildings and props (not to mention snazzy animated graphics) — visits such important local landmarks and monuments as: the Haymarket statue, the Balbo monument, the former home of the Dill Pickle Club, and “Hobohemia” (home of both Bughouse Square and the infamous “Hobo College”). To watch Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood is to learn some fascinating, lesser-known trivia about the Windy City’s radical past, as well as, I hope, to be inspired to fight the powers that be (as Chuck D would say) in the here and now.

The full Up to Speed episode of Chicago: To Conjure a Lost Neighborhood can be viewed online for free via Hulu below:


My Short Films at “Creating Justice”

My two most recent short films, At Last, Okemah! (2009) and The Catastrophe (2011), will be screening at Oakton Community College’s annual “Creating Justice” symposium on Saturday, April 12th in Des Plaines, Illinois. The symposium explores the unique possibilities for social transformation and creativity offered by the arts. Each film will be preceded by brief remarks by me and will be followed by a question-and-answer session. There will be many other artists at the event including Nicolas Lampert, author of A People’s Art History of the United States, who will deliver the keynote address. The event runs from 1:00 to 8:00 and admission is free. My portion, which will be held in Room 1625, begins at 4:30 and ends at 6:00. Any of my students who attend “Creating Justice” and write a brief report about the experience will receive 20 points extra credit towards their final grade. See your course website for details.

For more information about “Creating Justice,” including a full list of presentations, panelists and speakers, and directions to the venue, visit:

http://www.oakton.edu/newsevents/events/creating_justice.php

You can check out the trailers for my short films via YouTube below:


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