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maxresdefaultI remember watching Mad Max 2, also known as The Road Warrior, as a young-ish boy; probably about ten years old. I remember being transfixed by the final act, which famously features a long climactic chase as Mel Gibson’s titular hero fends off bad guy attacks while driving a giant, armoured rig across a post-apocalyptic wasteland with pedal firmly to the metal. It’s one of the all-time great movie car chases, up there with (but entirely different to) those that feature in The French Connection, To Live And Die In LA and Bullitt, and I expect I probably sat through most of it with my mouth wide open. I remember subsequently seeking out the low-budget first installment of the series, the cheapo 90-minute b-movie that implausibly became a worldwide smash, and being similarly impressed. Max was an iconic hero, director George Miller had created two fascinating alternative visions of Australia post-nuclear holocaust and Gibson became an international star. (I also thought Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome was pretty good, too, and think some of the indifference towards it that exists today is a shame, but let’s be honest: the highlights of the Mad Max trilogy are the car stunts and there are fewer in that third film.)

Anyway. That was 30 years ago, and I haven’t seen any of those original films since: in the mid-1980s a trilogy was a rare old thing indeed, and three Mad Max entries in quick succession had been more than enough for me, even at that tender age. I can’t say that I’ve thought about the series all that much since then, have never wished to revisit it, and wasn’t going to bother with Mad Max: Fury Road either until the overwhelmingly positive reviews started to appear a few days ago. I’d had it with Max Rockatansky, although it’s not hard to see why the series is cherished today by so many, particularly down under: the character is one of those charismatic, exaggerated, iconic individuals that encapsulates a certain aspect of the national psyche or a certain segment of society, at least in the eyes of the rest of the world, and the creation by Miller, original co-writer Byron Kennedy and Gibson certainly merited those three films. (An aside, but I feel the same way about James Bond: a character who is recognisably English to the rest of the world, who seems faintly ridiculous and anachronistic to me as an example of a modern English man, yet he remains a bizarre summation of many typical upper class white male English character traits: repressed, barely able to conceal his sense of entitlement, unwilling to open up and discuss his feelings with others, and unable to disguise his unfortunate superior attitude toward ‘colonials’, the working class or anyone in the position of ‘servant’.)

It’s a surprise, with all that in mind, to see the major roles in this new film occupied by Brits and Yanks, and to find out that much of it was shot in Namibia, though it’s not surprising to discover that both points have been put forward as part of a ‘Is Mad Max Still Australian?’ debate in the right-wing Australian press. Miller is back on board as director, and there are plenty of Australian actors in supporting roles and minor parts. It still feels like an Australian movie, more importantly, and though budgets have changed and special effects have improved there are plenty of links with the original movies; the production design is largely the same as the second two films of the original trilogy, even if some of the rough edges have sadly been dispensed with, and even though it glistens with the polished sheen of the modern blockbuster.

Part re-boot, part sequel, Mad Max: Fury Road takes that thrilling car chase from Mad Max 2 and expands it into a near-two hour action extravaganza, with Tom Hardy taking over from Gibson (in fact you might want to think of this as Locke 2: The Open Road). Hardy spends some of the film – though not all of it – playing second fiddle to Charlize Theron’s tough trucker Imperator Furiosa, a fearsome one-armed rig driver who has liberated half a dozen slave wives from the clutches of tyrannical warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in the original Mad Max). Furiosa and her party are chased across the landscape by the eye-bulgingly angry Joe and his army, are joined eventually by Max, and the group’s travels through different territories results in contact with a number of other hostile tribes to boot.

That’s it in terms of plot: there are other minor unimportant details while the long pursuit is sporadically interrupted by a couple of brief, quieter moments and bookended by scenes set at Joe’s Citadel, but the majority of the film is made up of kinetic, action-packed vehicular mayhem (plus the associated, wholly impressive, stunt acting). If something had been building up inside Miller while he was making animated family fayre like Babe, Happy Feet and their respective sequels he certainly found an outlet for it; I’m struggling to think of any film that relies so heavily on brutal, bone-crunching, ground-shaking action as this one.

And yes, that action is largely enjoyable to watch, even though Fury Road feels flabby at two hours. Vehicles repeatedly smash into each other; Joe’s army of war boys jump from one car to another, clamber along undercarriages and hang desperately on to bonnets; souped-up motorbikes fly through the air; spikes are used to impale; men fight and dangle from swinging metronomes; exploding spears are chucked; a guitar doubles as a flamethrower; some of this happens all at once, and if the velocity of the cars wasn’t enough in itself Miller often speeds up his film to enhance its cartoonish leanings. It’s zany, it’s pretty exciting and I expect that once again my mouth dropped open here and there. Credit must go to the actors (who are game and remain furrowed of brow throughout), the stunt drivers and stuntmen, comic artist Brendan McCarthy (who created the inventive character and vehicle designs) and the director, who presides over all this mayhem.

Even though I hadn’t been expecting anything else – I’d read enough to know what the film consisted of, and the trailer was a dead giveaway anyway – I still have to say that Fury Road is ultimately hampered by its paucity of dialogue and lack of story. There’s simply nothing here to stop this from being a minor blip on the cinematic landscape, a sugar rush snack that staves off hunger for an hour or two, and aside from one or two spectacular set pieces I doubt I’ll remember much of it this time next week. It exists simply to entertain for a couple of hours through its high-octane thrills and therefore most people who like action films, or watching fast cars, will enjoy it. Nothing wrong with that, of course.

As has been discussed many times elsewhere, it is interesting to see the male star take a back seat, literally, to the female co-star, but I think the suggestions that Fury Road is an important celebration or examination of womanhood that are doing the rounds are a little wide of the mark (seriously, watch this and compare). That said, as action films go, there are more feminist leanings here than the norm and yes: we get significant major and minor female characters, and as physically and mentally strong a female leader as I have seen in some time. However, as Dave Crewe succinctly points out in this review, there are certain choices made by the director and his writers that are more consistent with typically male-pleasing action blockbusters: ‘why didn’t Furiosa save Joe’s less conventionally attractive slaves?’ being an excellent case in point.

Still, Charlize Theron is the obvious highlight, and it’s great fun to see the manosphere getting its collective knickers in a twist: tough and strong, rarely needing to be ‘rescued’ and never once showing any desire for the love of a man, Theron’s Furiosa most obviously brings to mind Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, and the fact that I’m having to use a character as old as Max himself for comparison highlights just how rare such personality traits are in cinematic heroines. It’s a shame Furiosa isn’t developed further within this film, and it’s a shame that Max has lost a little charisma too (although you could never accuse Gibson’s Rockatansky of being verbose and the tradition continues), but the character probably needed the re-invention after all this time. Fury Road eventually becomes as monotonous as Junkie XL’s score, and I think it has been a little over-praised, but it’s a fun Saturday night movie nonetheless.

Directed by: George Miller.
Written by: George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nico Lathouris.
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne.
Cinematography: John Seale.
Editing: Margaret Sixel.
Music: Junkie XL.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 120 minutes.
Year: 2015.
Rating: 6.3.

21 Comments

Whiplash-2Whiplash – one of the most critically-acclaimed films of the recent flood of Oscar-botherers – contains the kind of story that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has seen more than a dozen movies during their lifetime. The protagonist-student-versus-antagonist-teacher plot – here in the form of a young drummer being pushed to his limits by a bullying professor keen to turn a rough diamond into a Buddy Rich-style great – doesn’t exactly break new ground, and indeed fits snugly into more than one of the famous seven story archetypes that we frequently encounter when paying our money / taking our chances. Then there are the unsatisfying, lightly-explored sub-plots revolving around the private life of the young drummer in question, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), which fail to develop his relationships with or the characters of his father Jim (Paul Reiser) and love interest Nicole (Melissa Benoist) with necessary conviction. And the script, which sparkles at times with its venomous insults and bitter, jealous asides and tackles the question of whether the ends justify the means enthusiastically, actually contains little fresh insight on the subject of artistic commitment, merely delivering Whiplash‘s own variant of a 30-year-old line from Fame. To paraphrase: Neiman has got big dreams. He wants fame. Well, fame costs, and right here is where he starts paying … in sweat. But – and, yeah, here’s the ‘but’, neatly slotted in after my initial grumbles – I enjoyed Whiplash a lot, and was gripped by director Damien Chazelle’s breakthrough work for the most part.

The film’s most celebrated performance, J.K. Simmons as the monstrous professor / band leader Terence Fletcher, has already been decreed by those who don’t actually get to decide such matters as The Biggest Shoe-in For Oscar Success since the last Biggest Shoe-in For Oscar Success, though I feel that’s a little unfair on Mark Ruffalo, and arguably Edward Norton and Ethan Hawke too (Robert Duvall’s performance in The Judge, which has earned that veteran a nomination, I haven’t seen and therefore can’t comment on). The requirements of Ruffalo as an actor in Foxcatcher and the requirements of Simmons as an actor here are different enough to make a mockery of the idea that one performance can be held up as being superior to the other, but obviously there’s lots of hype drummed up by such compartmentalisation and competition so I appreciate that needs must, and all that. Simmons is certainly magnetic, chewing and spitting out the scenery with the same alacrity that his Fletcher chews and spits out band members but, Norton’s turn in Birdman aside, his part is perhaps the one out of those referred to above that really demands that you sit upright and pay attention, thanks to the incessant, vitriolic barking. (I should state for purposes of clarification that I’m not criticising Simmons – I was relieved to find out that he is as good in this film as I’d been led to believe – I’m merely stating that singling him out as an obvious frontrunner may be partly due to the nature of the character as much as the actor’s performance. Though, of course, he may well win on acting merit; he would probably be my choice, on balance, though I should make further reference to the Duvall-istic caveat above.)

Anyway. The beat of Whiplash, if you will, is sustained by Fletcher’s ferocious verbal and physical attacks on Neiman (primarily) and the other band members of Shaffer Conservatory’s competition-hardened band, supposedly the best jazz orchestra in the best musical academy in the USA. This is a brutal but spellbinding and entertaining spectacle of bullying, designed to simultaneously amuse and repulse with its relentless mix of nasty-but-quotable putdowns and vicious racist or homophobic invective. It is uncomfortable to sit through and yet it is addictive, leaving you wanting more each time Fletcher disappears. Simmons delivers his lines with aplomb, but there is far more to his performance and the character than mere shouting, which has sadly been overlooked by some who have likened it to R. Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Not that the comparison is incorrect; it’s just that Ermey’s character hits his one note perfectly and, understandably given his background, was not required by Kubrick to do anything else. Fletcher is more complicated, and more interesting as a result. His personality is initially established during a series of scenes in which we learn much from the reverent, hushed words of music students and the barely-disguised contempt of a fellow teacher. Later, we see why all of these people are scared of him, or wary, but there’s more here than initially meets the eye. Does he give Andrew an opportunity because he is talented or does he give him an opportunity because he is both talented and also identifiable, in the opening scene, as someone that is open to intimidation? Is Fletcher a man driven by his own egotistical desire to be associated with top-class musicians or is he genuinely so in love with jazz he merely wants talented jazz musicians to become great and rise to the top? When he learns of the death of a former student – magnificent scene, by the way – is he crying because the world has lost a formidable talent or is it because it’s another apparent failure, as a teacher, to hand his favoured genre a lasting gift on a plate? Or are the tears dropping because of his acceptance that the death has, in no small way, resulted from lasting psychological damage caused by his teaching methods? And just how can an inherently evil man play piano in a jazz club so beautifully?

Whiplash is largely fascinating because of Fletcher’s ambiguity, which is heightened by the character’s duplicitous nature, seen on numerous occasions: he appears to be caring when he asks Neiman about his upbringing, but then uses the information as a stick with which to beat the pupil, turning him into ‘one of those single-teared people’ he supposedly despises; later on (spoiler alert) a seemingly-friendly conversation in a club is, effectively, the set-up for a cruel trick … or so it seems. There is a possible reading that the character is supposed to be schizophrenic, and his constant stereotypy – a clenched fist indicating musicians have made some infraction or other and should stop immediately – goes some way to supporting this. Either way the character is the hard evidence of some terrific writing by Chazelle, whose story is based to some extent on his own experiences in a high school jazz band.

Andrew is less-complicated, though not without depth, or his own contradictions. Chazelle uses the old trick of sending his character to the cinema (‘hey, he’s one of us!’) in order to increase his appeal early on, before making him less and less likeable as the film progresses. On the one hand there is a sympathy-inducing naivety in his desire to impress Fletcher and in his awkward courting of Nicole, but she and several other characters are on the receiving end of his ruthlessness soon enough. His cousins (at least I think they are cousins) receive short shrift around the dinner table when daring to detail their own achievements in American Football. Gradually his single-mindedness becomes so extreme he begins to resemble a sociopath: after a car accident he causes, for example, Andrew is asked about his welfare by a witness, but he fails to ask how the other party to the crash is, or to undertake any of the other requirements that usually follow such an incident. His rivalry with fellow drummers at Shaffer – engineered to an extent by the Machiavellian teacher – results in some further evidence of sociopathy, with the clear implication at one point that what we have seen on camera is actually a lie: an important document that appears to have been misplaced has, in fact, been deliberately discarded. The mentor can barely contain his delight when he sees the signs of this immoral, win-at-all-costs mentality in his charge, having identified it as a pre-requisite within the competitive field of professional jazz musicianship. It’s dog-eat-dog out there, and even when Fletcher himself is on the receiving end it turns quickly enough into realisation that this may be ‘his’ Buddy Rich, or Charlie Parker (the two musicians Whiplash references most often).

The insults, the psychological torture, the sweat and blood – regularly seen bouncing off the top of cymbals – all leads to a superb ending, which I won’t spoil. However I did find it completely satisfying, and loaded with all sorts of charged, orgasmic looks that act as a sexual climax of sorts, as much as a musical one, after all the apparent masochism throughout the film. It’s the kind of ending that makes you want to stand up and cheer, but you know that doing so will make you feel inherently dirty. Who exactly are we rooting for here? Whose achievement are we celebrating, and are we condoning what they have done to attain it?

Directed and written with flair, Whiplash utilises two main pieces of music in the story – Hank Levy’s Whiplash and Juan Tizol’s standard Caravan – imbuing both with a kind of quasi-mystical feel. Chazelle attempts to marry David Helfgott’s pursuit of Rachmaninoff’s demanding 3rd Concerto in Shine with the story of Icarus, and succeeds, while Andrew’s practice sessions on the drums act as fills for the soundtrack. The film is edited in a pleasing fashion, often in keeping with the rhythm and tempo of the music being played (an opening montage of typical New York street scenes is particularly effective), and Chazelle marries sounds with images well throughout. It’s unfortunate that events in Andrew’s private life feel a little by-the-numbers, and perhaps your enjoyment will be greater if you go expecting to be presented with a series of questions about the notion of achievement and the means of attaining it rather than any illuminating answers, but these points are raised merely to try and create a sense of balance here. In truth Whiplash is an extremely strong work and I left my local cinema thinking of the film as a great example of why I love this art form. Most of all I was impressed by Teller’s intense physical performance – you can only get so far with this industry’s overflowing bag of tricks – and Simmons’s conviction as the cold-hearted bastard who is simultaneously the best and worst thing that could have possibly happened to the drummer; their numerous scenes together – with their abundances of clenched fists, grimaces, two-way explosions of rage and uncomfortable breakdowns – are being rightly celebrated.

The Basics:
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 106 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 9.3

12 Comments

There may be a touch of the pantomime villain about Buddy Ackerman, the monstrous and vain Hollywood studio exec played by Kevin Spacey in Swimming With Sharks, but that doesn’t preclude the character from regularly appearing in those long clickbait lists with titles like ‘100 evil movie bastards’ or ‘The 5,000 most disagreeable wankers of all time’. Weirdly, though, the film itself isn’t widely-known; despite the fact it features Spacey and a young Benecio Del Toro (in what is admittedly a ropey supporting performance), few people have heard of Swimming With Sharks and it’s even harder to find people that have actually seen it.

Ackerman is a high ranking movie mogul and a first class prick, allegedly either based on real-life producers Scott Rudin or Joel Silver, depending on who you want to believe. When he isn’t manipulating his colleagues in order to get what he wants (which is usually either women in bed or the green light for movies that contain lots of loud explosions), he’s either humiliating his junior staff by publicly berating them or physically abusing them by launching objects at their heads. He is one of the great comic creations of the 1990s, a vicious, abhorrent man drunk on his own power, exploiting his lofty position in an industry that apparently ignores the usual ethical requirements of modern employment law. Spitting furious insults one minute, sneakily taking credit for the work of others the next, Ackerman is as cruel and as devious as they come. The role was made for Spacey.

The actor has drawn on his experience of bringing Buddy to life on numerous occasions since. There are signs of Ackerman’s withering sarcasm in Verbal Kint, Spacey’s character in The Usual Suspects, which was made around the same time. His arrogance can also be detected in Lex Luthor, from 2006’s Superman Returns, and the total lack of empathy was also evident in 2009’s Moon, in which Spacey coldly voiced the space station’s on-board computer Gerty. His relentless self-interest and cutthroat nature is manifest today in Frank Underwood, the anti-hero of House Of Cards, and – most obviously of all – Buddy was pretty much resurrected note-for-note in Horrible Bosses. Outside of Spacey’s own work the nearest comparison to Buddy Ackerman would probably be Jeremy Piven’s formidable agent Ari Gold, who brightened up eight whole series of Entourage with his ranting and scheming, although Ari is a much more sympathetic figure.

Swimming With Sharks is more than just 90 minutes of The Buddy Show, but Spacey does dominate the film, necessarily chewing the scenery and stealing every scene he appears in (which, admittedly, is most of them). The target for much of his bullying is his new assistant Guy (Frank Whaley), who arrives in the job holding naive pre-conceived ideas about working in Hollywood, which turn out to be wildly inaccurate. Initially filled with hope for the future, Guy is swiftly and unceremoniously brought back down to earth, but his hardened predecessor Rex (Del Toro) explains that the position has a good lineage and that Guy – an aspiring screenwriter – can expect to go places if he ‘protects [Buddy’s] interests and serves his needs’.

The trouble is those interests are nigh on impossible for an underling to protect and his needs cannot ever be fully served. On day one Buddy tears into Guy for giving him a Sweet N’ Low sweetener when he asked for an Equal. As Guy’s first year plays out we see that this is no first-day blip, with the sadistic Buddy constantly screaming at Guy in front of people for forgetting to provide him with phone numbers, failing to put important callers through (even when he specifically asks not to be disturbed beforehand) and a host of other minor transgressions and mistakes. Buddy tortures Guy in the office, forcing him to sit still for his own amusement when the assistant complains that he is desperate for the toilet, and he makes unreasonable demands that constantly interrupt Guy’s weekends (in one scene Guy is forced to seek out and buy every copy of Variety in Los Angeles to get rid of an article that portrays his boss in an unflattering way; not only does Guy do this, he also has to physically tear up every single page, resulting in dozens of paper cuts). The assistant’s endearing idealism is rapidly dismantled and the lack of work-life balance also has a detrimental effect on his burgeoning relationship with Dawn (Michelle Forbes), an ambitious producer who may or may not be playing her own game.

We know from the very beginning where all of this is going. Following a brief prologue the film begins with Guy, apparently driven beyond the point of no return, breaking into Buddy’s house to seek revenge for all the paper cuts, payback for all the insults and some kind of compensation for all those lost hours. Buddy is tied to a chair and beaten, and Guy’s first year in the job is subsequently played out in flashback, offering some explanation as to why he has flipped to such an extent (though when Guy angrily complains that he has put up with Buddy’s shit for too long Buddy snaps back that he suffered it himself for ten years from someone else).

The simple plot, low number of characters and reliance on just a few locations suggest that writer-director George Huang had the theatre partly (if not totally) in mind when he penned the story, and it’s no surprise that Swimming With Sharks has since been re-made on stage in several cities around the world, most notably in London where Christian Slater took on the Buddy role. Like James Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross – which also starred Spacey – there’s a reliance on the cadence of language rather than any visual poetry; as such it’s one of those endlessly quotable films, memorable for what you hear rather than what you see. The dialogue is snappy and sharp for the most part, the rat-a-tat barking of insults holding your attention while the backdrops of nondescript studio office spaces and bland restaurant interiors appear in view.

Spacey’s performance is terrific fun to watch, and at times it’s hard not to guiltily laugh along as Buddy insults poor old Guy for the umpteenth time, but the actor shows his range by convincingly tapping into the film’s dark undercurrent when required. Tellingly, the best scene in Swimming With Sharks isn’t one of the many in which Buddy serves up a volley of abuse, but a vital serious moment where the horrible boss reveals an explanation for his actions and some long-standing, well-hidden inner torment. Even if the ‘hey, every monster has a human side’ development is a little predictable, it’s impossible to ignore Spacey’s talent as he tells the story of his wife’s rape and murder years before. Whaley, on the other hand, is unable to match such high standards but he does manage to draw out the necessary empathy required for his character with plenty of stammering and hurt-puppy eyes. His is a fair performance overall.

Huang’s film isn’t quite good enough to be seen as a lost classic, but it’s still an interesting curio that’s worth checking out if you’ve never seen it. It certainly deserves a wider audience than the one it got at the time of release, and given Hollywood’s love for films about Hollywood it’s surprising that this didn’t receive a bigger push; perhaps it was difficult to sell, or perhaps a few too many feathers were ruffled by its satirical sideswipes at the business of show. Swimming With Sharks was given a trailer that made it look like a straight-up comedy, which led to confusion on the part of some reviewers and, presumably, quite a few of the cinemagoers who actually bothered to check it out; the 1990s were littered with dark comedies that studios struggled to market successfully – the handling of The Cable Guy, for example, was just as poor. In the end Swimming With Sharks only made $380,000 at the box office, barely half of the movie’s budget, but that’s a false indication of its merits: the blackly-comic tone is well-pitched and in Buddy Ackerman Huang and Spacey created one of the best tyrannical bad guys of the decade.

The Basics:
Directed by: George Huang
Written by: George Huang
Starring: Kevin Spacey, Frank Whaley, Michelle Forbes, Benecio Del Toro 
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 89 minutes
Year: 1994
Rating: 6.7

4 Comments

[Please note: the following review contains a couple of spoilers, which I’ve had to divulge in order to discuss the movie, but rest assured I’m not giving away major plot twists like the fact that Darth Vader is revealed to be a woman in The Empire Strikes Back, or the revelation that the woman in The Crying Game is actually Luke’s father. In fact I reveal less below than the movie’s trailers did, but thought I’d give a polite warning in case you’ve managed to avoid all info so far.]

In Edge Of Tomorrow Tom Cruise’s character is forced to live the same day over and over again, which is ironic because I often feel a cloying sense of deja vu myself when I’m watching a Tom Cruise movie. The actor usually plays it safe with variations on the same grinning uber-capable hero, and has done so for quite a while now, although with such a long career at the top there are a few very good performances and leftfield roles in the midst of the many tired, predictable ones. Still, most of the time there’s a nagging feeling that you’re watching Tom Cruise play a version of Tom Cruise, rather than a distinct, fresh character.

In this high concept sci-fi action film by Doug Liman he plays Tom Cruise Major William Cage, a man who has achieved his high rank not through heroism in combat but a background in advertising; his value to the military as a spin doctor is considerable, as an allied force drawn from all four corners of the globe is at war with an alien race, and the total number of soldiers is dwindling. The aggressive aliens are called ‘mimics’, an imaginative name bestowed upon them due to their ability to copy and respond to human military strategy, and in a clear reference to the Wehrmacht during World War II they have invaded and occupied most of Europe (landing in Germany via meteor strike first of all before spreading out across the mainland).

The spin here is that Cage is a coward, of sorts, although given the fact he has no military training and is thrown into battle against the vicious mimics as part of an incomprehensibly odd PR stunt by the stubborn General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), it’s hardly surprising that he’s scared and desperate to avoid the scrapping. Most people without military training would be petrified, quite honestly, but at least Liman and his screenwriters make it crystal clear why Brave, Bankable Tom isn’t playing Brave, Bankable Tom at the start of the film, lest your head explode as a result of the confusion.

In case you hadn’t worked out the Second World War allegory it’s rammed home by the allies’ plan to launch an assault on the beaches of Normandy, and despite his protestations that’s where Cage eventually finds himself, desperately trying to find out how to switch off the safety trigger lock as he enters the fray. (There are also references to a previous and important tide-turning battle in Verdun, which is a town more closely associated with the First World War. It is a cynical move to release the film as the 70th anniversary of the landings approaches.) His fellow soldiers couldn’t be more unhelpful or unfriendly if they tried, which made me snort with disgust when the honourable Cage later tries to save some of them, the chump. The mimics they must battle – four legged beasts with many tentacles that can move fast above and below ground, a little bit like the sentinels in The Matrix trilogy – are gruesome, heartless killing machines, but the human soldiers improve the odds of survival by wearing Aliens-style metal exoskeletons, and count in their numbers legendary special forces soldier Rita Vrataski (played by Emily Blunt), nicknamed ‘The Angel Of Verdun’ and ‘Full Metal Bitch’ for her previous mimic-bashing exploits. The aliens have prepared an ambush, though, and amidst all the confusion and slaughter that takes place on the beach, Cage is killed.

Oddly, he wakes up in the same position he was in several hours earlier, back at the military base in England. As stated earlier, like Groundhog Day and Source Code, Liman’s film deals with a main protagonist who is forced to live through the same day – and in this case the same battle – over and over again. Gradually Cage must memorise patterns, improve his own abilities as a solider and make decisions in order to affect the outcome of the day. If he dies, he returns back to the military base before going through the whole harrowing process once more, attempting to figure out the whys and wherefores as he tinkers with the day’s events.

No doubt the pitch went along the lines of ‘it’s Groundhog Day meets Source Code meets Aliens meets Starship Troopers (an attempt to replicate the tone of Paul Verhoeven’s satirical news stings is wisely ditched after the first couple of minutes) meets Saving Private Ryan’, and I suppose if you’re a studio executive that’s the kind of talk that quickly gets the blood flowing down to the nether-regions (right before a certain popular actor’s face pops into your head as if he’s Grin-o, The Magical God Of Predictability, Scientology And Huge Profits). Though it’s adapted from the Japanese young adult novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, Edge Of Tomorrow feels like a calculated, unoriginal amalgam of those five films, but the magpie pilfering actually works.

This is in part due to a well-judged script by Christopher McQuarrie and brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, which makes no attempt to disguise the preposterousness of the story, keeps the faux-science simple and contains a considerable amount of humour. (There is an amusing moment where Cage wins a fight simply by stepping to the side a couple of times, as it becomes clear he has had to experience the incident time after time in order to perfect such a response. Additionally, Rita’s repeated killing of Cage in order to restart the day becomes ever-funnier thanks to Cruise’s tired acceptance of its inevitability. This is surely a nod to Groundhog Day, recalling the exasperation of Bill Murray’s Phil Connors, as is the array of confused faces when Cage is able to relay secrets or life stories to other characters despite the fact they have seemingly only just met him.) Cruise rarely works with the same director again; to date he has appeared in films by Steven Spielberg twice, Tony Scott twice and Cameron Crowe twice, but that’s it from more than 30 years in Hollywood. However he is obviously drawn to McQuarrie’s work as they have collaborated three times now in six years (McQuarrie wrote the screenplay for Valkyrie, adapted the screenplay for Jack Reacher, which he also directed, and will direct Cruise in the fifth Mission Impossible film later this year).

Edge Of Tomorrow is a gritty sci-fi action movie but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and thankfully it doesn’t tie itself up in knots with the exposition either. Granted, the time loop idea isn’t new: it was popularised in La Jetée in 1962 and in recent years it has been used in Twelve Monkeys, Looper, Donnie Darko, two of the movies mentioned above and many, many more besides. Similarly the use of powered exoskeletons in science fiction movies has become so commonplace there’s a Wikipedia page now. Ultimately, though, the suits of armour are pretty damn cool and Liman deals with the repetition of time well, employing similar editing techniques to those used in Groundhog Day and Source Code; as Cage’s day plays out over and over we see fewer and fewer details, to the point where we can safely assume hundreds of days have passed between certain scenes without us seeing a single moment from them. This gives the film momentum, and Liman is wise to avoid showing the same events too often and to vary the locations so that the action doesn’t simply career back and forth between barracks and beach.

The action is the real draw here. The battle on the beach at Normandy is quite gripping, bringing to mind the grandstanding of video games like Halo, which is a good move considering the task-based repetition and the seemingly endless supply of lives at Cage’s disposal. The body count is high, the fighting is frenzied, and the film manages to capture the adrenaline rush of war well, even if it ultimately lacks the nail-biting realism of Saving Private Ryan‘s Omaha Beach re-staging. There are twists to the battle each time you see it, based in part on Cage’s decisions to try and save certain people or leave them to the fate he is aware will befall them; if he leaves certain people to die he has a better chance of saving others further on in time. Unfortunately there’s little sense of Cage wrestling with these life-and-death decisions away from the fray, though to be fair he is constantly racing against the clock, struggling to complete necessary actions before the day resets.

Cruise is…Cruise. There’s an inevitability about his transformation from spineless army politician to fearsome warrior in the film, so it’s hardly surprising that the pretence of him playing a character that differs from the heroic, shit-eating grin norm is abruptly ditched. He still makes a decent action hero at 51, though, which is fortunate because he shares very little chemistry with Blunt or any of the other actors (he is most comfortable when acting with Bill Paxton, who plays a stereotypical ballbreaker of a sergeant, but his scenes with Gleeson will make you wonder why you are watching two actors who are themselves seemingly attempting to figure out why they’re in a room together). Blunt meanwhile really goes for it, apparently training in a variety of martial arts in preparation for her part, and she is convincing despite relative inexperience with this type of film.

The cast overall isn’t terrible, by any means, but Edge Of Tomorrow is hampered by some poor acting from those with smaller parts; there’s an attempt to include a roughneck unit like the merry bands in Aliens and Starship Troopers which isn’t very credible at all, and though the parts of Cage’s fellow soldiers are undeveloped some of the acting is well below par. Noah Taylor is given the thankless task of playing this film’s crazy-scientist-who-might-just-be-onto-something, but just about pulls it off, though his character isn’t particularly memorable. Jeremy Piven was apparently added to the cast late last year with some new scenes filmed and set to be inserted, but they appear to have been left out after all.

For all my jibes above, I actually think Cruise and science fiction are a good fit. I haven’t seen last year’s Oblivion, but he has made two very good sci-fi blockbusters with Spielberg in the past decade or so and this is a half-decent addition to his long CV as well. Liman keeps things simple and the confidently-handled action sequences here lay to rest the ghost of his previous attempt at the genre, 2008’s Jumper. The movie benefits from a smarter-than-average screenplay (though, y’know, my expectations were low to begin with), but it must be said the ending is a damp squib and it brazenly copies from a host of superior films. Still, Edge Of Tomorrow is energetic for the most part, it’s funnier than you may expect, and it delivers plenty of alien-blasting entertainment.

The Basics:
Directed by: Doug Liman
Written by: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Hiroshi Sakurazaka
Starring: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Paxton
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 113 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 6.8

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Dick Powell – that’s him in the picture above – died young, at the age of 58. In 1956, seven years earlier, he directed The Conqueror, which implausibly starred John Wayne as the Mongolian warrior Ghenghis Khan. Filming took place downwind of atomic tests that were being carried out in Utah, which were taking place above ground, and a total of 91 members of the film’s 220-strong cast and crew developed some form of cancer by 1981. Of these, 46 people – including Powell and Wayne – had died of cancer by that year, a rate three times higher than would normally be expected in a group of that size.

Powell’s death unfortunately curtailed a career that had already been through several distinct periods. He began as a romantic crooner in Busby Berkeley musicals, re-invented himself as a tough leading man in the 1940s and even founded a TV production company with David Niven before ending up in the director’s chair.

By the mid-1930s Powell had grown tired of the youthful, romantic roles that made his name, and he decided longevity in showbusiness would only be achieved if he expanded his range. However the studio that had him under contract at the time, Warner Bros, refused to allow him to branch out from his normal type of role. Ten years later he had finally had enough, and argued that he was too old to play romantic leading men. He tried for the lead part in Double Indemnity but lost out to Fred MacMurray, who had also been typecast as a ‘nice guy’ throughout the 1930s and early-1940s. MacMurray’s success convinced Powell to pursue similar projects, and in 1944 he appeared in his first film noir, playing Philip Marlowe in Murder, My Sweet (Powell was the first actor to play Marlowe on screen). A year later he teamed up again with the director of that film, Edward Dmytryk, and the pair made another tough noir called Cornered.

Powell stars as Canadian RCAF pilot Laurence Gerard, who finds himself in England at the end of World War II. Gerard, a former POW, returns to France to find out who is responsible for the death of his bride, a member of the French Resistance who was killed just 20 days after their marriage. His investigations uncover the name of a Vichy collaborator by the name of Marcel Jarnac (Luther Adler), who has apparently vanished. Insurance documents lead Gerard to Switzerland and then on to Argentina, where he suspects Jarnac is part of a group of former Nazi collaborators and party members hiding out in Buenos Aires.

Powell must have enjoyed playing the hard-boiled Marlowe a year earlier, as here he takes things even further: his character is about as dour and as cynical as they come, dismissing just about everyone that he meets during the course of the film whether they are trying to help him or – as in most cases – do him harm. He delivers a string of sarcastic and insolent lines, makes stubborn and stupid decisions, and does everything in his power to remain alone, accompanied for the most part (in true noir style) only by his shadow. His work here paved the way for many similar performances by other leading men in the years that followed, and there are plenty of angry, weary protagonists within the genre that have more than a little Laurence Gerard in them.

Though his anger is understandable, Gerard is a difficult character to warm to, so it’s just as well that there is a succession of loathsome, slimy rats fulfilling the bad guy quota. As well as Jarnac there’s Melchior Incza (Walter Slezak), a mysterious stranger who meets Gerard at the airport and who may as well have been standing at arrivals holding a sign reading “I’m going to double cross you”. He’s a similar character to Sydney Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon, but there’s also a businessman by the name of Tomas Camargo (Steven Geray) to contend with and his wife, Senora Camargo (Nina Vale), Cornered’s principal femme fatale. Throw into the mix a shadowy Belgian banker by the name of Perchon (Gregory Gaye) and the question mark hovering over Jarnac’s widow Madeleine (Micheline Cheirel) and there’s a clear impression that Buenos Aires in 1945 was a real nest of vipers.

Unfortunately the array of characters – good and bad – means that the story has a few too many twists and turns, especially in the first two acts where it’s often not clear who Gerard is tracking, how his information is leading him to certain people or how he is getting from one place to another while in possession of a lapsed passport. Perhaps a second watch might be more rewarding, but once it settles down in Argentina and concentrates on the manhunt at hand, Cornered improves considerably, and the traditional attempt to frame the innocent hero two thirds of the way through works well.

The film has a well-realised dark atmosphere, and with its cynical worldview the movie helped to define the tone of many noir efforts that followed, good and bad. Most of it is set at night, which means there’s very little light here to balance all the shade. Cornered is a hard-edged, hard-nosed crime film and a fairly depressing post-war message is expressed about the state of fascism in the world. Detractors might argue that it could do with a little humour but I liked the bleak outlook and paranoia here. (Director Dmytryk was disappointed by the way the movie turned out, unfortunately, and would later find himself blacklisted as part of the Hollywood Ten.)

Though the violence in the movie is infrequent, it’s pretty strong by mid-1940s standards. The final showdown between Gerard and Jarnac is brutal, and there’s no sense of triumph to be found when their meeting is resolved; a fleeting sense of justice being done, perhaps, but the manner in which Gerard avenges his wife’s death is quite numbing.

Technically, there’s much to admire in Cornered’s mise-en-scène. It is well lit, with the shadow of Gerard in his mac and hat appearing regularly on the edges of the frame, passing along walls and hovering over the shoulders of the characters he meets and talks to. The camerawork is good, and the costume and set design is also solid, even though there is a reliance on standard-looking hotel rooms when the action shifts to Argentina (most of the film is studio-based, as was the norm).

While it is hampered at times by its convoluted plot, Dmytryk and writers John Paxton and John Wexley gets things right in the final act and increase the dramatic tension well before the finale. It’s an important film in terms of what came after it, but Cornered is primarily worth seeing for Powell’s performance as the downbeat, poker-faced depressed hero. It’s not quite Bogart, or Cary Grant, but he’s a pretty cool actor, all told, and the decision to leave the musicals behind was a good one. It’s a shame his life was cut short.

The Basics:
Directed by: Edward Dmytryk
Written by: Ben Hecht, John Paxton, John Wexley
Starring: Dick Powell, Walter Slezak, Micheline Cheirel, Nina Vale
Certificate: A
Running Time: 102 minutes
Year: 1945
Rating: 6.7

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Writer and director Noah Baumbach has delivered several witty comedy-dramas in his near 20-year career, which began in 1995 with the well-received debut Kicking And Screaming. In that film Baumbach’s main characters were a group of college friends who were all stubbornly refusing to move on with their lives, and this period of mid-to-late 20s adjustment – where carefree youth first begins to give way to encroaching middle age and a general desire for stability – is examined again in his latest, Frances Ha.

‘Mumblecore’ may be a fairly recent term, but Baumbach has been operating on its fringes for quite some time now, making a series of lo-fi, witty and dialogue-heavy movies. As an established director he is able to command slightly larger budgets than those more clearly associated with that scene, and his status has attracted the presence of several major Hollywood names, but his influence on the sub-genre is clear: Kicking And Screaming, for example, is the bridge that links Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (or even Joel Schumacher’s bratpackalicious St. Elmo’s Fire) to the likes of Andrew Bujalksi’s Funny Ha Ha.

The similarities between the titles of Bujalski’s debut and Baumbach’s latest surely cannot be coincidental, but during the course of its 86 minutes Frances Ha looks beyond the past decade, directly referencing or bringing to mind several other influential filmmakers with whom the director must feel he shares a certain degree of kinship. It feels at times like an early Jim Jarmusch film, mainly because it shares the same kind of self-aware, introspective and verbose characters. At times it has the same kind of playful energy found in Truffaut’s Jules Et Jim, also includes George Delerue’s music, and recalls the nonchalant daring of the French New Wave more generally. In terms of its setting, rapid-fire naturalistic dialogue and use of black and white (albeit digital) it brings to mind Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Annie Hall (although it’s perhaps a little more ambivalent in its attitude towards New York). There are even hints of Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz’s TV late-80s TV series 30something, the current HBO TV series Girls, Hal Hartley’s Amateur and Whit Stillman’s The Last Days Of Disco for good measure. Rest assured, though, this is more than simply a hotchpotch pastiche; Baumbach celebrates these influences but his film does not suffocate under the weight of them, thanks to a strong script, capable actors and his own talent for directing.

Greta Gerwig, who wrote the screenplay with Baumbach, is pitch perfect as Frances Halladay, a 27-year-old dancer trying to make a living in New York while sharing an apartment with best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). The film follows a year (roughly) of Frances’s life, starting with a break up with her boyfriend; it’s one of those reasonably-amicable splits that seems to happen simply because neither partner can be bothered to actually stop it from happening, although their initial argument is caused by the fact that Frances isn’t keen to move in with him. Unfortunately Sophie then decides to move in with her own new boyfriend, and Frances must find somewhere new to live as a result.

Luckily she meets sculptor Lev (Adam Driver) and writer Benji (Michael Zegen), who seemingly have no fixed incomes but no trouble occupying a fairly nice three bedroom apartment in Manhattan (‘The only people who can afford to be artists in New York are rich’, Sophie drolly points out). (Benji is writing scripts for Saturday Night Live in the film, which used to be one of Baumbach’s jobs.) Frances’s flies home to her family in Sacramento for Christmas, but finds work in New York hard to come by, and struggles to cover her rent. She takes a disappointing credit card-fuelled trip to Paris, works for a summer in Poughkeepsie, and then finally returns to New York with a new talent discovered.

Frances is an engaging and well-observed central character. She is positive, amusing, sharply intelligent, friendly, light-hearted and refreshing: she doesn’t spend the film pining over other men or complaining about being single (she shares a repeated joke with Benji that they are both undateable, when both know that is far from the truth), and though there are a few scatty Bridget Jones’s Diary moments (falling over on the way to pay for a meal on a date, for example) these aren’t too irritating. Frances isn’t defined by dizzy moments: they’re merely presented as the kind of things that can and do happen to anyone from time to time. Perhaps it’s just the kinds of films I’ve been watching, but I haven’t seen a female lead character like Frances for quite some time. She has been likened to Cate Blanchett’s character in Allen’s Blue Jasmine, but I wonder whether the comparison has been made purely due to the paucity of notable female leads in 2013. (You can tell Frances was written by a woman in the same way you can tell Jasmine is, on many levels, an extension of Allen himself … or at least his neurotic on-screen persona.)

The film relies somewhat on the rapid-fire dialogue of young, confident New Yorkers sitting around tables at home, or at parties, but this is largely enjoyable to follow. (I picture myself at the same age, with two male flatmates, barely even managing to grunt at each other during our marathon Playstation sessions, except to point out that the flat was on fire or to comment on the fact we hadn’t eaten for 48 hours.) Gerwig and Baumbach’s screenplay contains more than its fair share of sharp lines, from withering putdowns to flirty friend-on-friend banter, and though it’s a bit too clever-clever at times – 90 minutes is about all I can take in one sitting – the dialogue holds your attention throughout. It is set in the present but this is barely acknowledged and seemingly irrelevant; only the hipster clothing and occasional appearance of a smartphone dates it.

It’s rare to find a film about adults that concerns itself with friendships first and the relationships of couples a distant second. The companionships that exist between Frances and the other characters are believable, and though Sophie, Benji and Lev are present primarily to support her story, they are an interesting trio. The strongest bond is between Frances and Sophie, though their asexual relationship changes as the film progresses; the friendship is a close one initially, full of in-jokes, but it is affected by individual circumstances and decisions, and the two gradually drift apart. Frances seems lost at first without her best friend, and despite the fact she gets on well with her two new male flatmates, the dynamic they share is quite different. She returns to Vassar College – where she met Sophie originally – to work for the summer, as if returning to the source will stop the distance between them from growing, and when she discovers a talent for choreography her debut work is informed by her own recent friendship experiences.

The film’s pacing is excellent. Time seems to pass slower in New York, with Frances restless at home or struggling for work (she isn’t a very good dancer), while conversely her visit home to see the parents (played by Gerwig’s own parents, incidentally) is dealt with in a short and vibrant Christmas montage. Refreshingly, this isn’t fraught with dramatic tension: there are no mini-rows with family members and the brief holiday is shown as a pleasant, comfortable time. Her trip to Paris – an ill-conceived weekend of missed phone calls, jet lag and Eiffel Tower backgrounds – is dealt with just as quickly.

Baumbach and Gerwig – who are currently partners – have made a droll, witty film about female friendship and the point in life where nomadic adolescence is rejected in favour of stable adulthood. It may not be laugh-out-loud funny, but it manages to amuse nonetheless, and Gerwig’s performance – at the heart of the film – is excellent.

The Basics:
Directed by: Noah Baumbach
Written by: Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Mickey Sumner, Adam Driver, Michael Zegen
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 86 minutes
Year: 2012
Rating: 7.6

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Under The Skin is perhaps one of the more unusual cinema releases of the year so far. Part sci-fi, part horror, it features Scarlett Johansson as an un-named alien who ‘borrows’ the human body of a recently-deceased woman and travels around a bleak, rainy Glasgow in a white van, seducing men and harvesting their bodies. It is experimental, moody and leaves several key questions unanswered (most notably: ‘What the fuck is going on?’), but it is a striking work that confirms director Jonathan Glazer is one of the more provocative and interesting British filmmakers working today. Several wags have dubbed it the arthouse Species, and while the comparison is amusing, the brief plot outline is where the similarities between the two films end: this is Ridley Scott on bad acid, a movie that is dark, unsettling, thought-provoking, disorientating and memorable.

It opens with a minimalist, Kubrick-esque abstraction that purportedly signifies the alien’s birth, her re-birth or a journey to Earth, and the next hour of the film mainly consists of her driving around the city, striking up conversations with men as she passes through docklands, busy shopping streets and the roads around the Celtic Park stadium on match day. (In theory the alien is not gender-specific, but since it adopts a female form in the movie I’ll refer throughout this review to ‘her’ rather than ‘it’.) She seems to identify some of these men as worthy prey and ignores others, and the only criteria in terms of selection appears to be that they are single and (possibly) lonely. She has a slightly plummy (and commendably accurate) English accent and, dressed in fake fur, stonewashed jeans, black wig and with bright red lips, Johansson’s alluring alien takes on the appearance of a vintage-obsessed beauty: three parts 1950s to one part 1980s. She picks up most men after stopping to ask them for directions, and interestingly quite a few of these are not professional actors; Glazer and his team filmed real people with hidden cameras.

In one nightmarish scene, disturbing for all kinds of reasons, she beats a man with a rock before dragging him off to her van. Another guy is picked up in a nightclub. With each seduction or attack we are given a little more information as to what eventually happens to these victims: they are taken back to abandoned buildings by the alien and preserved in a kind of black, oily substance, a process that is shown in a fascinating, theatrical way by Glazer. There are no objects present in these scenes, just the alien and her prey, and most signifiers of scale and space are removed. It is pitch black, which suggests this might be taking place in another dimension; the victims follow the alien as she sheds her clothes and, enraptured, they slowly disappear into the goo as she eerily continues walking backwards without sinking.

Why she is repeatedly doing this is something the story never makes explicitly clear. Are they being harvested for food? For organs? For whose benefit? Is it an experiment? Why only single men? The mind wanders and, although it’s easy enough to draw your own conclusions, confirmations as to the whys and wherefores are few and far between. She is aided by a mysterious man on a motorbike (Jeremy McWilliams) who, it seems, is another alien; the two share some kind of psychic link, but their relationship is ambiguous. He appears at times to be a kind of ‘cleaner’, tidying up after the victims go missing, but could equally be a superior. Is she working for him, trapped in a cycle where she is forced to inhabit one body after another and repeat her task ad infinitum? Is this essentially some form of intergalactic pimp / prostitute relationship? It’s hard to tell: the adapted screenplay by Glazer and Walter Campbell dispenses with most of the information contained in Michael Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name, which is about food harvesting and does contain a boss / employee dynamic.

Eventually the alien begins to question her existence, showing compassion where previously there was no sign of it at all, and in the second half of the film she gradually tries to experience life as a human but becomes more and more awkward in her suit of flesh. Johannson has a necessary blank, detached expression for much of the movie, and this works well, but in the second half she telegraphs the alien’s growing sense of unease in the body superbly, and her inquisitive staring is quite affecting. The way that Glazer films her observation of mundane human activities such as walking, talking and eating is very interesting; in his hands these acts seem as culturally bizarre and out of place as anything unusual the alien does. In one blackly humorous scene, for example, the alien tries to eat a slice of cake, and it looks like it’s the most unnatural, unusual thing in the world anyone could possibly attempt to do.

Given the premise of a woman holding power over several men and eventually killing them, Under The Skin can be viewed as a pro-feminist work, but the relationship between the two aliens and the suggestion that the man wields the true power is troubling with respect to such a reading. At one point the male alien closely inspects the female alien’s body, presumably checking to see if she is still up to the task of attracting the single men of Glasgow, and he circles her in a way that makes her look as if she is nothing more than a piece of meat in his eyes. Perhaps Glazer is highlighting something here; he is not objectifying the main character in his film with this scene, but playing with the idea of objectification. (Other women rarely appear, although there is one scene in which Johansson’s alien gets caught up with a group of women on a night out. Not that it’s the be-all and end-all, but the film does fail the Bechdel Test.) Recent history has seen a number of high profile female pop stars marketed as strong, independent women, yet in truth they are expected to maintain a certain sexual allure and are often required to take off their clothes for music videos, dance suggestively etc. etc., usually with male directors, producers and record company executives and shareholders benefitting handsomely as the puppet masters. If they lose that sexual allure they are often consigned to the scrap heap, replaced by younger stars who are at the first stage of the entire process, and very few manage to experience any longevity within the industry. The same can be said for female actors, many of whom have long found parts harder to come by when they – and I don’t agree with the term – ‘lose their looks’. I’m not suggesting Under The Skin is specifically about all of this, but given Glazer’s history as a director of music videos there’s a slim chance this sexism within the entertainment industry is something he is addressing.

Without wishing to spoil anything, there are additional questions raised by the final act, and the way in which the female > male theme is brutally reversed by the end of the film. The last, haunting shot suggests the alien has achieved a sense of peace, oddly recalling Anton Corbijn’s poetic ending to the Ian Curtis biopic Control, but in order to get to this state she must endure something that can only be interpreted as a horrific punishment for her previous actions. Why did anyone feel the need to take the story in this direction? It would seem that a woman can only have this amount of power in a film if she is eventually stripped of it by a man.

Under The Skin is filmed in a gritty, realistic style, which makes for an interesting change from most science fiction. This is an alien story that is unconcerned with deep space, or threats to the President and The White House, or anything else that would serve to distance it from the here and now through exaggeration (yes, despite the scenes of black goo). The camera focuses mainly on mundane parts of Glasgow, and even when the plot takes in greener, leafier locations the rain seems to be relentless. It’s a million miles away from the adverts made by Visit Scotland, the national tourism organisation, but Glazer’s cold, dark take on the country suits the film to a tee. It’s certainly strange seeing an actor of Johansson’s fame and standing appear in an experimental work like this, especially when the locations are more likely to be seen in an episode of the TV series Taggart, but it’s a superb casting move and she deserves credit for taking on the role. (This is a point that has been made repeatedly elsewhere, but I would hasten to add that it’s a sad reflection on the conservative nature of many famous actors that a move such as this is so damn rare. Maybe the chance to appear in a movie like Under The Skin doesn’t come along too often, but I would suggest it’s more likely due to risk aversion within Hollywood generally. Why work with Glazer in rain-soaked Scotland when you can get some quirk on the CV via Wes Anderson or Tim Burton? I imagine their sets are far comfier than sitting in traffic in a white transit van for hours on end.) I should also mention at this point Mica Levi’s extraordinary soundtrack, which adds to the general eeriness and sense of displacement, whether scoring the otherworldly alien moments or the otherworldly Glaswegian moments (with apologies there to Mr Marakai – it’s a fine city!)

Glazer and Campbell went through several drafts of the screenplay, and the film had a long gestation period as a result; ironically – on the subject of gestation periods – it’s the director’s first since Birth, which came out roughly ten years ago. That movie, starring the equally progressive Nicole Kidman, received some scathing reviews but time has been kind and some well-respected critics have since suggested that it is a lost classic.

Birth and Under The Skin both premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and both received boos from the audience at the end, which I find bizarre; even after sitting through dross like Sharknado I rarely find myself insulted enough to actually heckle a blank screen, and Under The Skin is certainly no Sharknado. Glazer’s latest has gone on to polarize opinion, though, since that initial screening: some British newspaper critics have been riled by its pretentious leanings and have channeled their anger into knee-jerk reviews that call it an irritating mess, while others have remarked upon its bravery and the vision of the director, hailing it as a masterpiece. I’m leaning towards the latter, though I’m not sure such high praise is quite befitting. It is, though, a highly original science fiction / horror film with many striking images and a convincing dark, unusual atmosphere. Comparisons can often seem lazy but it’s little wonder that Glazer is currently being mentioned in the same breath as Kubrick and Nicolas Roeg.

The Basics:

Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Written by: Jonathan Glazer, Walter Campbell, Michael Faber
Starring: Scarlett Johansson
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 108 minutes
Year: 2013
Rating: 8.6

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