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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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    Totem Review – It’s Not Always A Bad Thing To Look Up From The Bottom Level, If You Like That View

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    Starring Kerris Dorsey, James Tupper, Ahna O’Reilly

    Directed by Marcel Sarmiento


    Following the untimely death of a family’s matriarchal figure, a young woman finds out that managing to hold all of the pieces in place becomes increasingly more difficult when otherworldly infiltrators make their presence felt. We’re going to have to work our way up this Totem, as

    17 year old Kellie is the leading lady of the home following the passing of her mother Lexy, and with a needy father and tiny tot of a baby sister, she still keeps things in working order, regardless of the rather large hole that’s been left in the dynamic due to the death. Kellie’s dad after a while decides to ask his lady-friend to move in with the family, so that everyone can move onto a more peaceful existence…yeah, because those types of instances always seem to work seamlessly. As fate would have it, Kellie’s sense of pride is now taking a beating with the new woman in the mix, and her little sister’s new “visitor” is even more disturbed by this intruder – only question is, exactly who is this supernatural pal of sorts? Is it the spirit of their dead mother standing by to keep watch over the family, or is it something that’s found its way to this group, and has much more evil intentions at hand?

    What works here is the context of something innately malicious that has found its way into the home – there are only a couple moments that come off as unsettling, but the notion of having to weave through more than half the film acting as a sullen-teen drama is rather painful. The presentation of the “broken family” is one that’s been done to death, and with better results overall, and that’s not to say that the movie is a complete loss, it just takes far too much weeding through at times stale performances and even more stagnant pacing to get to a moderately decent late-stage conclusion to the film. Under the direction of Marcel Sarmiento (Deadgirl), I’d truly hoped for something a bit more along the lines of a disturbing project such as that one, but the only thing disturbing was the time I’d invested in checking this one out. My best advice is to tune into the Lifetime channel if you want a sulky teen-melodrama with a tinge of horror, or you could simply jump into this one and work your way up…but it’s a LONG way to the top.

    • Film
    2.0

    Summary

    Sulky, moody, and ridden with teen-angst buried in the middle of a supernatural mystery – SOUNDS like a decent premise, doesn’t it?

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    IAMX’s Alive in New Light Review – A Dark, Hypnotic, and Stunning Musical Endeavor

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    Recording eight albums is an achievement no matter the artist, group, or band. This is especially true for Chris Corner’s IAMX, his solo project after the trip hop group Sneaker Pimps, which has enchanted listeners since 2004’s Kiss + Swallow with its dark electronic aesthetic. There’s something fascinating about the music Corner puts out as IAMX. Perhaps it’s the underlying melancholy that seems to pervade the music, almost certainly a result of the musician’s battle with depression and chronic insomnia [Source]. Perhaps it’s the unexpected melodies that reveal themselves with each new measure. Whatever it is, IAMX’s music is a constant delight.

    On Alive in New Light, Corner reveals that his eighth album was a product he created as a way of “…breaking free from demons that have long plagued him,” per an official press release. Strangely enough, this uplifting attitude may easily be overlooked but repeat listens unveil a sense of hope and wonder that are simply breathtaking. The title track echoes with almost angelic choir pads that positively shine as Corner exultingly cries in a shimmering falsetto, “I’m alive in new light!” This comes after the Depeche Mode-esque “Stardust”, which offers the first collaboration with Kat Von D, whose pure voice is a beautiful addition to the pulsating track.

    The third track, “Break The Chains”, has an opening that immediately called to mind Birds of Tokyo’s “Discoloured”, which is meant as a compliment. It’s followed by the Nine Inch Nails influenced “Body Politics”, which meshes Corner’s crooning vocals with a 90’s industrial backdrop. “Exit” has an almost sinister progression lurking in the background that builds to an aggressive, in-your-face third act. The cinematic Middle Eastern flairs of “Stalker” mutate effortlessly into a heartbeat pulse that features back-and-forth vocals between Corner and Von D. The haunted circus vibe that permeates through “Big Man” is mirrored by its playful gothic aura, ghostly “oohs” and “aahs” sprinkled carefully here and there.

    While the album has been a delight up to this point, it’s the final two tracks that took my breath away and left me stunned. “Mile Deep Hollow” builds layer after layer while Corner passionately cries out, “So thank you/you need to know/that you dragged me out/of a mile deep hollow/and I love you/you brought me home/because you dragged me out/of a mile deep hollow.” The way the song’s melodies back these wonderfully uplifting lyrics feels grand and epic, as though a journey is coming to an end, which is where “The Power and the Glory” comes in. Far more subdued, it’s a beautiful song that feels almost like a religious experience, a hymn of a soul that is desperate to claw its way to salvation and escape a life of pain and darkness.

    What makes Alive in New Light so wonderful is how much there is to experience. I got the album and listened to it no less than five times in a row without pause. I simply couldn’t turn it off because each return revealed something new in the music. Corner also makes fantastic use of Von D’s vocals, carefully placing them so as to make them a treat and not a commonplace certainty.

    While some may be disappointed that there are only nine tracks, each of the songs is carefully and meticulously crafted to be as powerful and meaningful as possible. It really is a stunning accomplishment and I’m nothing short of blown away by how masterfully Alive in New Light plays out.

    • Alive in New Light
    5.0

    Summary

    IAMX’s Alive in New Light is a triumph of music. Full of beauty and confidence, it doesn’t forget the foundation that fans have come to know and love for over a decade but instead embraces that comfortable darkness with open arms. Corner states that this album was a way to break free from his demons. It certainly feels like he’s made peace with them.

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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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