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Under the Skin (Blu-ray / DVD)

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Under the Skin (Blu-ray / DVD)Starring Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell

Directed by Jonathan Glazer

Distributed by Lionsgate


Nearly every ardent film aficionado understands that cinema is highly subjective, with most pictures garnering an equal number of supporters and detractors. Sometimes, half the fun in seeing a new movie is the post-viewing discussion that breaks out among friends over what did and didn’t work. Few films, though, can divide audiences more rapidly than art house movies. Where some viewers key in on subtleties and nuance, others see a pretentious mess that could bore a person to death. You don’t run across many people who have a “meh” reaction to something intrinsically artistic – either they love it and praise it endlessly, or they hate it and can’t spew enough vitriol. One such film that has recently divided filmgoers is writer/director Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013). Adapted from the 2000 novel of the same name, which was written by Michel Faber, it’s the tale of an interstellar succubus that travels to Earth for the purpose of luring in lonely men and denuding their bones of flesh via an… unusual method. It has been met with stirring acclaim – it currently holds an 87% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes – though there seems to be an equal number of critics who found it to be a pointless exercise of languid cinema. While at a cursory glance it may be easy to see where they’re coming from, the fact is Glazer’s film is purposely unconventional and a bit obtuse, requiring much deeper thought if viewers want to gain knowledge of its true nature. Nothing is overtly spelled out; it’s all in the subtext.

An alien (Scarlett Johansson) arrives on Earth to take the place of her predecessor, who has died under unknown circumstances. What these two “women” share are attractive features that would interest most hot-blooded men, which is essential to their purpose. Johansson (her character is never named) drives the streets of Scotland at night, attempting to pick up on single, unattached men who are more than eager to follow her back to her flat. Once inside the austere, blackened tomb where she resides the men strip down and follow her sultry figure across the room before being enveloped by a viscous liquid that preserves them alive, yet slowly softens their skin before sucking the flesh from their bones. It is not a pleasant way to go, even when you consider their final view of her curvaceous backside. She views humans from an objective perspective, with little regard for their lives and emotions; she is merely a tool here to do a job.

Her nightly endeavors hit a snag when she meets a young, deformed man (Adam Pearson, who looks not unlike the legendary Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick) who is shy and unaccustomed to attention from such a beauty. His grotesque exterior belies the gentle person under the skin, and, so, she begins to learn there is more to humans than just their outward appearance. She decides to let him go. Her experience with this young man changes her perception of not only those around her, but herself; of the body she inhabits. This leads her on a journey of self-reflection and stark realization; a trial through which she attempts to assimilate within the human world, experimenting with food and relationships and sex; things which were once so foreign to her. Constantly shadowed by a male of her species, one who maintains a constant vigil over her affairs and cleans up any messes, she is eventually resigned to the fact that despite her best efforts, she will never enjoy the pleasures our world has to offer.

Plot is secondary here; the story is more concerned with capturing the existential journey an alien takes when confronted with the possibility of becoming something more than what it is. Much like the people around her, viewers are kept at a distance, merely observing her actions without becoming deeply involved. Her purpose on Earth is only vaguely defined – we don’t exactly know why she’s seducing and liquefying these men. So much of the film is left open to interpretation that viewers with a short attention span (i.e., sadly, most of the younger generation) will probably check out early on without considering the messages being conveyed. The title has a double meaning, as it not only refers to there being something more under the skin of Johansson’s character, but also of the film’s depth. A reasonable comparison might be the work of David Lynch (though this film never reaches those lofty heights) because without a deeper evaluation of what’s being shown it would be all too easy to casually dismiss it as artsy, theoretical garbage.

It’s hard to believe any man wouldn’t jump into a vehicle if propositioned by Johansson, but many of the men she preys upon are either uninterested or oblivious to her intentions. If some of the reactions seem rather candid and genuine, that’s because they are. Many of her nightly escapades were shot using hidden consumer-grade cameras mounted in a van, with the actress calling out random men on the street that were only told of the ruse after the shots were completed. It’s a subtle touch that adds an extra layer of realism. Even many of the film’s characters (none of whom are given screen names) were portrayed by untrained actors. The aforementioned young man with severe facial disfigurement? That’s his real face, and his casting is testament to the realism Glazer attempted to achieve. The alien “cleaner” who shadows Johansson’s every move isn’t an actor at all, but a world-class motorcycle racer. The role required someone who could drive at high speeds on slick roads, and rather than use a stunt double Glazer simply hired Jeremy McWilliams, an Irish professional racer, to don the helmet. As a result of these casting decisions, and the fact that most have very little dialogue, the film’s veracity is greatly heightened.

A good film can almost always be elevated by a great score, and the work done here by Mica Levi, aka Micachu (of Micachu & The Shapes), is exemplary. Droning bass lines are punctuated by bursts of Fox string sounds, a technique that has been used for decades to heighten tension and emotion. The score incorporates elements of electronic and acoustic instruments, giving the entire affair an appropriately alien feel. Levi’s leitmotif used during the film’s sequences of seduction is mysterious and sexy, like a lure that emanates from within and puts these men into autopilot. The atonal compositions are hypnotic, easily lulling viewers into a trance. It’s certainly one of the best film scores of the year thus far.

Despite a dearth of major activity, I never found myself bored while watching the film. Sure, Glazer lets himself veer into Terrence Malick territory at times, with long, sweeping wide shots that linger in a fixed position for lengthy periods of time. Thankfully, the Scottish landscape where they shot is so gorgeous that few will be bothered by witnessing its consistent beauty. If some find the film to be cold, well, that was intentional. This is a cold world to an alien being – it’s even cold to those who aren’t alien – and it succeeds in never allowing viewers to feel much comfort. Under the Skin is a stoic reflection of humanity through the lens of the ultimate foreign body. Some of Glazer’s directorial decisions are rather puzzling – with many questions left entirely unanswered – but for those who enjoy films that aren’t wrapped up in a neat package by the time credits begin rolling this is a cerebral experience that feels satisfactory. It may not be perfect, but it certainly is unique in a sea of homogenized cinema.

Viewers must keep in mind that the film’s 1.85:1 1080p image was produced using a variety of cameras, and so the results are going to vary from scene to scene. The color palette veers toward steely, blue hues with saturation stripped down in other colors. The muted aesthetic was intentional, as was the decision to shroud most of the film in a state of near-darkness. Black levels are inky and deep, aside from a few cases where contrast was boosted on purpose, rendering them a bit hazy. The nightly encounters with men on the street were captured using GoPro-style cameras, and they look about as reasonable as can be expected – grainy, not very detailed, and like a home video. Although much of what we see is bleak, the Scottish vistas look simply gorgeous and haunting. This might be far from what Blu-ray aficionados consider “reference quality”, but it is no doubt presented just as accurately as Glazer and his collaborators intended.

A great deal of the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound track rests on the compositions of Levi because there isn’t a lot of dialogue to be heard. When characters are speaking, it is presented cleanly and balanced, though good luck making out what half the Scots here are saying. Those brogues are thick as a brick. The most boisterous moments come when Johansson enters a nightclub, with bass thumping and the sound of patrons echoing all around. Otherwise, the track comes to life only when Levi’s score is slowly working its magic to immerse listeners. Rears come to life for added ambiance, but this is a very minimal sound design that keeps viewers focused more on the images on screen and less on what they’re hearing. Subtitles are included in English SDH and Spanish.

The back cover sells the supplements a bit short, claiming to hold only one featurette. That one featurette is actually several shorter pieces that together form a nice making-of that runs over 40 minutes, focusing on camera, casting, editing, locations, music, poster design, production design, script, sound, and VFX. An insert containing a code for digital Ultraviolet HD download is included in the package.

Special Features:

  • The Making of Under the Skin featurette

    Film:

    4 out of 5

    Special Features:

    3 1/2 out of 5

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    The Hatred Review – A History Lesson Dug Up From The Depths Of Hell

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    Starring Zelda Adams, Lulu Adams, John Law

    Directed by John Law


    I don’t know about the scholastic interests the masses had (or have) that read all of the killer nuggets that get cranked out on this site, but when I was an academic turd, one of my true passions was history, and it was one of the only subjects that managed to hold my interest, and when the opportunity arose to check out John Law’s ultra-nightmarish feature, The Hatred – I was ready to crack the books once again.

    The setting is the Blackfoot Territory in the late 1800s, and the pains of a lengthy conflict have taken their toll on the remaining soldiers as food has become scarce, and the film picks up with soldiers on the march in the brutal cold and snow covered mountainside. In tow is a P.O.W. (Law), and the decision is made by the soldiers to execute him in earnest instead of having to shorten their rations by feeding him, so he is then hung (pretty harshly done), and left to rot as the uniformed men trudge along. A short time later the group encounters a small family on the fringes of the territory, and when the demands for food are rebuked, the slaughter is on and the only survivor is a young girl (Adams) who prays to an oblivious god that she can one day reap the seeds of revenge upon those who’ve murdered her family. We all know that there are usually two sides to any story, and when the good ear isn’t listening, the evil one turns its direction towards those who need it most, and that’s when the Devil obliges.

    The answer to the young girl’s prayers comes in the resurrection of the prisoner that was hung a short time ago, and he has been dubbed “Vengeance” – together their goal will be achieved by harshly dishing out some retribution, and the way it’s presented is drawn-out, almost like you’re strapped into the front-row pew of a hellfire-cathedral and force-fed the sermon of an evil voice from the South side of the tracks. It’s vicious and beautiful all at once, Law’s direction gives this visually-striking presentation all the bells and whistles to please even the harshest of critics (hell, you’re reading the words of one right now). The performances, while a bit stoic in nature, still convey that overall perception of a wrong that demands to be righted, no matter how morally mishandled it might be. Overall, I can absolutely recommend The Hatred for not only those wanting a period-piece with ferocious-artistry, but for others who continue to pray with no response, and are curious to see what the other side can offer.

    • Film
    3.5

    Summary

    The Hatred is a visually-appealing look into the eyes of animus, and all of the beauty of returning the harm to those who have awarded it to others.

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    Before We Vanish Review – A Quirky and Original Take on Alien Invasions

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    Starring Masami Nagasawa, Ryûhei Matsuda, Hiroki Hasegawa

    Written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

    Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa


    During the J-horror rampage of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo (aka Pulse). A dark, depressing, and morose tale of ghosts that use the internet to spread across the world, the film’s almost suffocatingly gloomy atmosphere pervaded across every frame of the film. Because of my love of this film, I was eager to see the director’s upcoming movie Sanpo Suru Shinryakusha (aka Before We Vanish), which follows three aliens who recently arrived on Earth and are preparing to bring about an alien invasion that will wipe humanity from the face of the planet. Imagine my surprise when the film turned out to be barely a horror title but was instead a quirky and surreal dramedy that tugged at my heartstrings.

    Admittedly, I was thrown completely for a loop as the film begins with a scene that feels perfectly at home in a horror film. Akira (Tsunematsu), a teenage girl, goes home and we enter moments later to blood splashed on the walls and floor and bodies strewn about. However, the disturbing visuals are spun around as the young girl walks down a highway, her clothes and face streaked with blood, Yusuke Hayashi’s music taking on a lighthearted, almost jaunty attitude. From there, we learn of the other two aliens (yes, she’s an alien and it’s not a secret or a twist, so no spoilers there): Amano (Takasugi), who is a young man that convinces a sleazy reporter, Sakurai (Hasegawa), of his true form and tasks Sakurai with being his guide, and Shinji (Matsuda), the estranged husband of Narumi (Nagasawa).

    What sets these aliens, and their mission, apart from other invasion thrillers is their means of gathering information. They’re not interested in meeting leaders nor do they capture people for nefarious experimentations. Rather, they steal “concepts” from the minds of people, such as “family”, “possession”, or “pest”. Once these concepts are taken, the victim no longer has that value in their mind, freed from its constraints.

    While this may seem like a form of brainwashing, Kurosawa instead plays with the idea that maybe knowing too much is what holds us back from true happiness. A man obsessed with staking claim to his family home learns to see the world outside of its walls when “possession” is no longer a part of his life. A touchy boss enters a state of child-like glee after “work” has been taken. That being said, there are other victims who are left as little more than husks.

    Overly long at 130 minutes, the film does take its time showing the differences between the aliens and their individual behaviors. Amano and Akira are casually ruthless, willing to do whatever it takes to send a beacon to begin the alien invasion, no matter how many must die along the way, while Shinji is the curious and almost open-minded one, whose personal journey finds him at one point asking a priest to envision and describe “love”, a concept that is so individualistic and personal that it can’t be taken, much less fathomed, by this alien being. While many of these scenes are necessary, they could have easily been edited down to shave 10-15 minutes, making the film flow a bit more smoothly.

    While the film begins on a dark note, there is a scene in the third act that is so pure and moving that tears immediately filled my eyes and I choked up a little. It’s a moment of both sacrifice and understanding, one that brings a recurring thread in the story full circle.

    With every passing minute, Before We Vanish makes it clear that it’s much more horror-adjacent than horror. An alien invasion thriller with ultimate stakes, it will certainly have appeal to genre fans. That being said, those who go in expecting action, violence, and terror will certainly be disappointed. But those whose mind is a bit more open to a wider range of possibilities will find a delightful story that attempts to find out what it means to be human, even if we have to learn the lesson from an alien.

    • Before We Vanish
    4.0

    Summary

    Before We Vanish is a beautiful, wonderful tale that explores what it means to be human when faced with the threat of extinction.

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    Delirium Review – Bros, Cameras And A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On

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    Starring Mike C. Manning, Griffin Freeman, Ryan Pinkston

    Directed by Johnny Martin


    When will these testosterone-overloaded frat bros with cameras ever learn that pissing off the evil souls of the departed all in the name of amusement won’t get you anywhere but wrecked? Same goes for filmmakers: when will they learn that found-footage exploits set in a house of pure sadism are something of a wrung-out affectation? Oh well, as long as people keep renting them, they’ll continue to get manufactured…which might or might not be to the benefit of the horror film-watching populous.

    Delirium opens with a poor lad, strapped with a GoPro, running for his life through a labyrinth of haunted territory, praying for an escape…and it’s a foregone conclusion as to what happens to this trespassing individual. We then relocate our focus towards a collection of (ahem), “gentlemen” self-titled as The Hell Gang, and their escapades are about as profound as their grasp on the English language and its verbiage. The words “dude”, creepy”, and the term “what the fuck” are thrown about so much in this movie it’ll make your head spin to the point of regurgitation. Anyway, their interest in the home of the Brandt clan is more piqued now than ever, especially considering one of their own has gone missing, and they’ve apparently got the gonads to load up the cameras, and traverse the property after-hours, and against the warnings of the local law-enforcement, who surprisingly are just inadequate enough to ignore a dangerous situation. The cursed family and the residence has quite the illustrious and bleak history, and it’s ripe for these pseudo-snoopers to poke around in.

    Usually I’m curb-stomping these first person POV movies until there’s nothing left but a mash of blood, snot and hair left on the cement, but Martin’s direction takes the “footage” a little bit outside of the box, with steadier shots (sometimes) and a bit more focus on the characters as they go about their business. Also, there are a few genuinely spooky scenes to speak of involving the possession of bodies, but there really isn’t much more to crow about, as the plot’s basically a retread of many films before it, and with this collection of borderline-douches manning the recording equipment, it’s a sad state of affairs we’re in that something such as this has crept its way towards us all again. I’m always down for jumping into a cold grave, especially when there could be a sweet prize to be dug up in all that dirt, but Delirium was one of those movies that never let you find your footing, even after you’ve clawed your way through all of the funereal sediment – take a hard pass on this one.

     

    • Film
    2.0

    Summary

    Got about a half-dozen bros with cameras and a wanton will to get slaughtered on camera, all the while repetitively uttering the same phrases all damn day long? Then my friends, you’ve got yourself a horror movie!

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