Tag Archives: Under the Skin

Ghost in the Shell

1 Apr

Put a pretty girl in some Lycra and, poof, you got a movie, right? Well, yes and no. It worked with Kate Beckinsale and Milla Jovovich in the “Underworld” and “Resident Evil” series respectively, but not so much for Charlize Theron in “Aeon Flux” or Halle Berry in “Catwoman.” You can add Scarlett Johansson to that “not” list with this live-action adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga “Ghost in the Shell,” done more righteously in the 1995 animation feature directed by Mamoru Oshii. Sure, Scar-Jo looks fetching, much as she does as the Black Widow in the “Avengers” series, and the film, helmed by Rupert Sanders (“Snow White and the Huntsman”) with lush cinematography by Jess Hall, might even be more optically alluring. The “Blade Runner”-esque reimagining of a near-future Shanghai is a wonderment in its own right and perhaps worth the price of entry, but not enough to atone for an inert script and robotic acting.

Things begin promisingly enough when Scar-Jo’s Major rises elegantly out of a synthetic pool, the first cybernetic organism manufactured by the Hanka Robotics corporation. Major’s a leap forward in human and technology fusion (the flesh and steel body being the “shell,” with her computer-infused brain the “ghost”), yanked from her scientific incubators (a matronly Juliette Binoche among them) and appropriated as a weapon to fight cyberterrorists. The target du jour is an elusive entity known as Kuze (Michael Pitt), who’s out to hack Hanka and the government to pieces. Major’s barely out of the lab when we get a glimmer of her prowess, leaping from a tall building and taking out a room full of assassins with barely a hair out of place. It’s a fiery, kinetic jolt that perhaps comes too early for its own good. The shell in which the film operates becomes quickly inconsistent in tenor and tone, bouncing from somber, semi-serious oppressive future vision (back to “Blade Runner”) to hyperbolic free-for-all and, in the process, uproots the prospect of suspension of disbelief.

Sadly too, Scar-Jo, so fantastic in “Under the Skin” (2013) and normally quite capable, comes off Ben Affleck-wooden here and is further undermined by the film’s lack of an emotional core. The device of Major struggling to tap into her “ghost” to discover her true identity, much akin to Peter Weller’s cyborg in “RoboCop” (1987), piques interest at turns, but ultimately feels tacked on and beholden to the larger sheen. The corporate and governmental double dealings, which strangely seem apt as metaphor for the Trump presidency and its shadowy ties to Russia, also could have been played for greater satire and bite but also become lazy and lackluster plot points. By the end of the film, everything’s empty and contrived. Then the “spider tank” shows up and hyperbole takes off her gown to reveal a not-so-appealing figure.

Jackie

19 Dec
Director Pablo Larrain has worked on political films before, like 2012's 'No,' about the 1988 Chilean Pinochet referendum

Director Pablo Larrain has worked on political films before, like 2012’s ‘No,’ about the 1988 Chilean Pinochet referendum

Adversity is a great yardstick for character. Filmmakers in on this nugget of wisdom understand that the more compelling route to showcasing a historic icon is in the moments or incidents that come to define them, not the rote, cradle-to-the-grave biopic format. Selma did that for Martin Luther King (2014) as did Loving — albeit on a much smaller scale. Now we have Jackie, an up close and intimate inside look at the famous first lady in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination.

The entire mood of Pablo Larraín’s film bears a thick, dour air atop a quiet, yet deep-rooted resolve. It’s an impressively bold attempt at such a revered presidency with much of the project’s success hanging on Natalie Portman’s fully-immersed and utterly mesmerizing portrait of the grieving first widow. Add to that Mica Levi’s beguiling score that palpably embosses the emotional undercurrent of every scene — if you’re unfamiliar with the composer, she brought a similarly aural pulse to Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013) and with Jackie will surely become a hotly sought resource.

The film begins at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannisport, Mass. with an unnamed journalist (Billy Crudup, ostensibly based on Life magazine’s Theodore White who interviewed Jackie around that time). He arrives to get the scoop on the widow’s sense of loss. “There’s the truth that people believe,” Jackie tells him “and there’s what I know.” Thus setting the table for the back and forth parry, which while polite, often tilts towards the adversarial, though it does bear strokes of cathartic relief for Portman’s Ms. Kennedy. Throughout the interview the media savvy Jackie holds the reins tight as well as her inner turmoil. “You want me to describe the sound the bullet made when it collided with my husband’s skull?” she bluntly injects confronting the inevitable before the journalist can wind his way around to the question. From the journalist’s stunned face we then rewind to Dallas to that fateful day of Nov. 22, 1963. Continue reading

Women Who Prey

18 Apr

Film Review Under the Skin

Much will be said about the women and their use of sex as a means to an end in Lars von Trier’s two part Nymphomaniac and Jonathan Glazer’s alluring new film,Under the Skin. Sex in both endeavors is a must; an addiction in the former and a tool for sustenance in the latter. But in both cases the women are driven by something beyond their control and as a result, they prey.

Joe (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, with Stacy Martin as the young incarnation), the insatiable protagonist in von Trier’s pandering provocation, embarks on her first hunt aboard a train wearing gleefully self-described “fuck me” garb. She’s looking to achieve a series of bathroom conquests and baits the men, packed like sardines into cramped traveling compartments, with fluttering doe-like eyes as she requests help in finding the washroom, and later, for her crowing achievement, settles on a more stately married man in first class. He is so morally affixed and committed that to break that bond will yield the greatest conquest and the most points in an ongoing game of sexual one-upmanship with a fellow train cruiser. After swaying the reluctant mark,  he passively empties himself into her mouth. The man is changed, drained, and emotionally shaken from the transgression he consciously wished no part of until mid-ejaculation. For Joe the act is simply a tally notch, a big bull buffalo on the savanna that her sleek apex feline sussed out, isolated, and brought down. How the man returns to his wife, or if his life is disrupted from the interlude, is of no concern.

In the wild, the act of predation is cold, calculating and necessary. There is nothing civil or remorseful about it. While Joe does it to feed her id or inner dysfunction, Scarlett Johansson’s intoxicating incarnation in Under the Skin, largely nameless but identified as Laura in the credits, does it out of rote need. She’s not of our world but something supernatural, a celestial traveler who has been transfigured to look like us, and on something of a farming mission to harvest human flesh for her ilk. The urgency of her assignment renders palpable and strong as she patrols the streets of Glasgow in an austere white van asking for directions (uncannily similar to Joe’s locomotive panderings).  Continue reading