“Boyhood”: Part III

September 10, 2014

boyhood3 It’s a little mystifying why the cumulative impact of the film is so much less than what we thought it would be at the beginning. There is pleasure in observing a young person growing up in America in the millenium’s first decade. Alongside that, we have the fresh experience of seeing the effects of time, physically, intellectually and emotionally, on a diverse group of multi-faceted, colorful characters. It’s interesting, too, to watch this particular grouping of actors. While we recognize Patricia Arquette, most of us haven’t seen much of her over the last decade, except for her featured role in Boardwalk Empire. That in itself is rewarding. Just to remember her past performances, such as in True Romance and Flirting With Disaster, and to see the physical changes. I think the general view is that – even a little older and slightly more plump – she’s still sexy and eminently watchable.

Ethan Hawke, on the other hand, has never left the public eye, and seems to turn up everywhere. His long-standing collaboration with Richard Linklater is well-known to independent film audiences, and has been beneficial for both their careers. But has that association been good for the film? In one sense yes; in another no.

The positive is that it has probably been essential to getting the film made at all. Hawke’s creds in independent film are very respected, and I think that a number of the crew may have adjusted their schedules because he believed in the project. But his character, Mason Sr., does present problems in that Hawke, so familiar and likeable, lets his natural charm take over the performance. Charm has become so associated with Hawke that viewers automatically settle into a comfortable, familiar groove when he’s onscreen. It’s like he sells it by the yard. Making matters worse is that Mason Sr. is not sufficiently interesting a character to pull us back into the story. As a result, I found myself watching him “perform” this selfish loser as just another vanity turn by a popular actor. The difference here is I was also watching him get years older during a single performance.parquette1

If Hawke’s performance tilted the film towards what is essentially a weak dramatic character, the sporadic glimpses of Olivia made me want to see more of her. Hers was a story with built-in interest, especially as Patricia Arquette portrays her. Ostensibly the abused rather than the abuser with her men, she nevertheless catches whomever she sets her cap for, and then discards them when it suits her. Each of them comes off badly – especially the wife-beating professor – but you can’t help thinking that we only see them at their worst after they’ve spent a long, long time in her company.

Still, the urge to speculate about her arises from a fascination with the character we actually see. Olivia’s ambition, determination and persistence are always as a mother first, even when her often unwise choices also serve her strong, womanly needs. Perhaps our interest is also whetted by the infrequency of her scenes. The two sharpest, most penetrating scenes in the film both concern her. The first one occurs right after Olivia and Welbrock get married. We follow Mason Jr. and his step-brother, Randy, riding home on their bikes. In a brilliant shot, the boys ride past the open garage and find the beaten Olivia lying on the floor, with a drunken, defiant Welbrock standing over her. The image is swift, nasty, shocking.

The second is even better. Late in the film, Olivia is with the children in a restaurant when the manager, who is about thirty, comes over. He recognizes Olivia as the woman who, some years before, had advised him to go back to school. He tells Mason Jr. and Samantha that Olivia changed his life, and that she is a smart woman. From this, we recall similar scenes from other films. We are led to expect certain familiar things to happen. A minor character from the past will show up and tell the main character something. It is always a good thing, complimentary to the main character, who will beam warmly on hearing it. But that doesn’t happen this time. At first, Olivia registers nothing at all. Her face is a blank. But then, slowly, there is a darkening of her expression, as if unpleasant feelings are surfacing. There is a resentment that is unmistakable. It is as if she thinks, “Sure, a stranger meets me once and it turns his life around. But I struggle my whole life to get this family everything they have, and they think they did it all themselves.”

I’ll conclude this four-part review next time. It will discuss another story where we watched a boy character, and the actor who played him, grow up before our eyes.

“Boyhood”: Part II

August 21, 2014

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There are a number of questions concerning how we are supposed to enjoy this film. It seems to be a straightforward story about a small boy, his parents and a slightly older sister. But from the title alone, we sense that it will take place over a number of years, culminating in that moment when “boyhood” is completed. And that is exactly what happens. Mason Jr., whom we have seen from the age of six, is now eighteen and is starting college. He has left his mother, who has raised him as a single parent since the beginning of the film, and is starting the exciting adventure of being responsible for himself.

When the film ended, I was gratified in that I felt I knew Mason Jr., and that the story had reached a natural conclusion. Certainly the film had been true to its title; nothing remained of “boyhood” as a stage of life, and the person who had been the boy had passed on to another stage, while remaining the same person. Whatever would happen to Mason Jr. after the film was over would be the story of him as a young man. If the actor playing him, Ellar Coltrane, was able to continue the role in a sequel, the film would have a different title.

But in actually seeing the film as Mason Jr.’s story, it’s impossible to appreciate it on that level alone. That’s because the way the film was made is so unusual that it must inevitably serve as a story in itself, one that is parallel to the story about the fictional characters the actors portray. They can do their best – and for Patricia Arquette, it’s a career summit – but the way they age in those twelve years is a separate, and often intrusive, experience. It’s almost as if we’re watching two films simultaneously on a split screen.

So, what about that story, the one about the fictional Mason, Jr? What kind of story is it?

Actually, it’s pretty straightforward, even if it kind of rabbit-hops in a broken line.

We meet Mason Jr., age six, and his sister Samantha, eight, and their mother, Olivia, at a time when their father, Mason Sr., returns to Texas from working in Alaska. Mason Sr. and Olivia were divorced during that time, but he wants to do some week-end parenting while continuing the search for his “inner self”. If nothing else, the kids have fun when they’re with him; dour Olivia doesn’t have time for that. She takes the family to live in Houston, near the children’s grandmother, where she finds better paying work while attending college. Meanwhile Mason, Sr. continues his fun visits, but Mason, Jr’s hopes that the family will re-unite are crushed; Olivia has set her sights on a future without her children’s father, permanently.

She starts a relationship with her psychology professor, Welbrock, also divorced, and they marry. He has a young son and a daughter too, and they all live in a large, comfortable home for a while, while Mason Jr. adjusts  to his disappointment. But things go downhill fast. The professor is a bully and a drunk, and Olivia runs with the children to live with a friend. Her second divorce soon follows.

By now, Mason Jr. is in high school, getting acquainted with new friends and, of course, girls. He goes to parties, does the usual stuff, but stays out of trouble. Olivia, a teacher now, is an attentive parent, wary but not smothering. She sets limits, which both her children resent, but balance is maintained. Soon she takes up with another man, Jim, an Iraq War veteran, and a new household is formed. But financial and other strains kill that relationship too.

Mason Sr., however, finally finds his groove. It’s not music, which he always loved but couldn’t make work for him, but insurance, which is dull but steady. He gets married to a girl with religious parents, has a child with her, and takes Mason Jr. and Samantha to meet her family. But another event has a deeper impact on their relationship. Mason Jr. learns that his father has sold his car, the one that was promised to Mason Jr. once he turned sixteen. He protests, and nothing Mason Sr. says to soothe him relieves his resentment. It is clear that he will never feel the same way about his father again.

While still in high school, he continues his growing interest in photography, and gets a girlfriend. Since both of these pursuits require money, he gets a part-time job in a restaurant. His boss is impressed, and hints at a promotion during a minor chew-out. His teacher is even more impressed, and is compelled to give him a rough verbal shakedown about his work ethic. But Mason Jr. is not receptive to this; he thinks he works pretty hard.

He visits Samantha, who is away in college, and takes his girl along. Samantha’s roommate walks in unexpectedly and discovers Mason Jr. and his girlfriend having sex, but they all laugh as if it’s just a goof. The relationship gets serious, at least for Mason Jr., until he finds out the girl has cheated on him with a lacrosse player. He tells his dad about the breakup, and the pain he feels, but Mason Sr. puts it in perspective for him. Women will just do things like that, and the pain will be less each time.

Mason Jr. wins second prize in photography and gets a college scholarship. Olivia sees that, with his departure, she faces the rest of her life alone. She has completed her life’s only real accomplishment, and sees only emptiness ahead of her. Overcoming her bitterness, she has a lavish party in her home for her son. Mason Sr. and his family come, along with many other people who have passed through the boy’s life in those twelve years. Afterwards, he drives to college, meets his roommate and, it is implied, his next girlfriend.

This a bare bones synopsis. I’ve omitted a number of things but only one that, I think, is significant, which I’ll talk about next time. Despite my reservations, I must recommend the film because of its originality. But, even for those who are more enthusiastic than I am, you’ve got to admit that the last hour is pretty tedious. That will be addressed in part three of this review.

 R.I.P., Marilyn Burns

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I think that Marilyn Burns would appreciate, or at least understand, why that picture represents her place in film history. In my opinion, her  performance in Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) was vitally important to the film’s success, especially at the insanely terrifying climax, when she barely escapes with her life from the crazed family that had abducted her and murdered her friends. I knew as soon as I saw her that she was an artist in her own right; a “scream artist”. I had never heard screaming like that in any horror film, and few have matched it since. Her pursuer, Leatherface, is a ridiculous figure who’d seem a curious joke if we saw him at a masquerade party. We’d point and laugh. Instead, I laughed out of terror and disbelief at what I was seeing. Her panic and breathless shrieking – for what seemed beyond human endurance – helped make for one of the most unforgettable endings for any horror film.  Marilyn died last week, at age 64, and few knew her name. Her very special performance will endure.

Film Review “Boyhood”: Part 1 of 4

July 28, 2014

boyhood1 This film has received the best reviews of the year. There is much speculation about its Oscar chances, and many consider it the “popular” breakthrough that its writer-director, Richard Linklater, has been waiting for after over twenty years as an obscure independent, albeit with an international reputation. As most indie followers know by now, it was filmed  over a twelve-year period using the same actors, so we got to see all of the characters – as well as the actors playing them – enter new stages of their physical lives in real time. Of course the “real time” is for them, not us.  We only age two-and-three-quarter hours during the film.

It may seem that I am writing a simple review of the film, but I am also trying to do something else. Boyhood presents something of a challenge to the viewer, as well as the critic, although not a unique one (as I will discuss in Part IV). We are being asked to appreciate what is a single story about a group of fictional characters. The focus is on how the main character, Mason Jr., grows from childhood (age 6) into young adulthood (18), and how the lives of the other people in his life are also changed. But we are seeing a parallel story at the same time. That second story is an attempt to observe the changes that occur in  life – all human life – over the passage of time. This is a tall order, and it can result in pretentiousness and banality, like those “anti-war” films that are meant to show the futility of all war. Boyhood takes that risk and, whatever else you may think about it, succeeds in giving us a unique, thought-provoking experience.

So what kind of experience is that? I’m not going to tell you now. I’ve decided to issue this piece in four stages, each of which will present a different approach to understanding the film. The next part will appear in a week or two, when you, the reader, and I are both in a later stage of life.

 

Film: “The Way, Way Back”

June 25, 2014
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(left to right) Zoe Levin, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, Liam James

This summertime comedy from last year tries to plug-in to the “coming of age” meme that sends adults back to the time, when they were young, that will be remembered, fondly, for the feelings and experiences they think actually happened, and wish they could experience all over again, even though, at the time, they destroyed countless pillow cases with their teeth while they hurled muffled screams into the darkness.

Oops, sorry! Seems I got carried away a little. Actually, TWWB deserves a review less distorted by this critic’s painful past because there’s some genuine skill and solid entertainment to be had, even if all of the parts don’t quite fit together.

The kid coming of age here is Duncan (Liam James), 14, who goes on vacation near Cape Cod with his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), and her boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell) and his daughter, Steph (Zoe Levin). Their neighbors are hard-partying types, especially Betty (Allison Janney), who has a daughter about Duncan’s age. We see early on that Duncan hates Trent, who is a surly and malicious type, although Pam tries to smooth things between the two, with no success.

Duncan relieves the tension by hanging out at Water Wizz, a theme park whose main attraction is a large water slide. The manager, Owen (Sam Rockwell), has sympathy for the troubled, quiet Duncan, and is able to get him out of his protective shell with his easy-going, slacker attitude. Duncan takes a job there, and develops confidence in himself, which, ironically, makes him defy Trent even more.

The conflict leads to an explosive public confrontation at a party one night when Duncan accuses Trent, correctly, of having an affair with a beautiful neighbor (Amanda Peet). Pam is humiliated and torn, but she decides to stay with Trent. In an effort to save their relationship, Pam and Trent decide to cut the vacation short. Duncan is devastated because he will have to part with Owen, who has become a father-surrogate for him.

The film concludes, uneasily, with not one but two discordant endings. In the first, just as the family is leaving, Duncan breaks free and runs to Water Wizz, with Pam and Trent running after. He embraces Owen and, in a symbolic rite of his independence, teams with him in a dangerous, and unprecedented stunt on the water slide, to rapturous applause from the crowd. Then, in the second ending, as Trent drives the family away, Pam moves away from him to sit next to her son in the back seat, as if silently announcing that the relationship is over.

That second ending leaves a sour taste that pervades the whole film. I don’t think first-time director-writer team Nat Faxon and Jim Rash ever resolved this right through the final script. Steve Carell’s performance is wildly off-base, and it darkens the tone of the film whenever he’s onscreen. If he wanted to show he has the chops for Ibsen and O’Neill, he succeeded. He makes Trent a very unpleasant but still fascinating man, and the dynamics of his relationship with Duncan could make for a sturdy, dark drama, like This Boy’s Life. Unfortunately, that second ending seems more of a lead-in to the real and unseen climax of the film, one which is likely to be violent and end up in Juvenile Court.

Film: “Neighbors”

June 10, 2014

STORY: A thirtyish couple with their first baby like sex and weed and, of course, baby. They don’t think much about money, the future or any of those boring “grownup” things. Just sex, weed and baby. But one day, a fraternity buys the house next to theirs and starts having loud, crazy sex, booze and weed parties every night, which makes baby scream and drives Mommy and Daddy batshit. The Prez and VP of the frat have a mission to create wild party history, and will not “keep it down”. After warily trying to be nice, the couple declare war on the frats, intending to drive them out. Will they succeed?

GOOD STUFF:  There are some laughs here. Director Nicholas Stoller knows something about comic pacing, and the good gags sort of sneak up on you. The best involves stolen car air bags, but even the gross toilet humor can be sharp and, for want of a better word, pungent. For genuine wit, however, the closest it gets is the homo-erotic subtext between the frat Prez and his VP, played by Zac Efron and Dave Franco, respectively. They have four choice face-offs that hilariously show the extent of male self-delusion about their own sexuality.

NOT SO GOOD:  Even cartoon characters need clear motivation or else the comedy suffers. This is not a problem with the frat kids and their babes. They reminded me of the vampires in “True Blood”; totally controlled by animal appetites. But the starring roles are the parents, and they were neither likable nor believable. As played by Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, both skilled actors, they didn’t seem like adults at all, just overaged children who find themselves playing grownups as a goof. They seemed less human than the party vampires. By coincidence, “Ruby Sparks” was on cable that night. It’s no classic, but watch any five minutes of that film and you’ll find a quality totally missing from “Neighbors”: charm. I don’t think Stoller and company think that’s important, especially when you compare the grosses of the two films. But the laughs, even big ones, can feel empty without it.

Review: “Locke”

May 31, 2014
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Tom Hardy in “Locke”

 

This film has been getting a lot of attention as a daring, innovative experiment, but it’s really just a variation on a genre that goes back decades. I call it “techno-stunt” because it tells a story involving many people by having the camera stay on a single character for almost the entire running time.  Here director-writer Steven Knight (writer, “Eastern Promises”) makes clever use of modern technology to get us involved in the lives of a number of characters who are heard, but never seen. The only character we do see, Locke, played by Tom Hardy in a virtuoso performance, is only shown behind the wheel of his car as he talks via speaker phone to the other characters.

This makes it a kind of radio play. Its film precursors include a Barbara Stanwyck vehicle, “Sorry, Wrong Number”, which intersperses her telephone monologue with flashbacks.  Jean Cocteau’s “The Human Voice”, both as play and film, is a monologue of a woman talking on the phone to her lover, who is leaving her to marry a younger woman.  Another telephone monologue  is a TV film, “Eddie”, for which Mickey Rooney won an Emmy for playing a playing a gambler desperately making calls to raise money before thugs come to collect a gambling debt.

Knight modernizes the format by having his hero talk on speaker phone while driving his car, which allows us to hear the person on the other end. The story is perfectly suited to this treatment. The film starts with Locke, a building contractor in Birmingham, England, driving home to his family. He is nervous because he is expecting a delivery of concrete that is crucial to his building’s completion. But he gets an unexpected call that turns his life around. Locke finds himself confronted with a moral challenge that threatens to destroy his marriage and career. The film shows how he meets that challenge.

Essentially, this is a soap opera, but very well done. What places it at a somewhat higher level is that the real conflict is within Locke himself.  He thinks of himself as a man of integrity, and the fact that his single “lapse” could ruin his life is especially painful. I’m sure that some men watching the film would think Locke is foolish to do what he does, and that his “sacrifice” is really just a guilt trip triggered by an exaggerated sense of self-importance. They would have a point. Does he really need to protect the woman giving birth to his child, or is he simply too vain to admit that things may work out anyway? Is it worth the break-up of his marriage, or the separation from his two young sons? And, with regard to the business deal, is it worth the risk of destroying the most important project of his career?

Knight is able to hold us in a tight grip until his satisfying conclusion, but he can’t hide the contrivances of the story. While Locke is convincingly driven by the need to live responsibly – which is explained by his own father’s abandoning him as a child – the other characters, who, after all, are only disembodied voices, seem to be figures in a morality play, not real people. This reduces the film’s impact considerably. Locke is presented as such a controlling person, one who is used to getting his own way, that all obstacles, whether his wife’s rage over his adultery, or locating employees who are not too drunk to follow his instructions, are overcome too easily. The film’s final image, and sound, is craftily calculated to choke us up (it does), but it really hasn’t been earned.

Having said that, I must note the exception, the one genuinely touching moment in the film. It occurs near the end, when Locke is approaching his destination and stops answering his  calls. He hears a voice mail left by his younger son, who describes in detail the winning goal in the football championship that Locke had promised to watch with his sons. It is a long, excited description, and you can sense the boy’s disappointment over his father’s absence. With only the look in his eyes as he hears this, Hardy is able to fully convey the depth of his pain.

 

Review: “Bullets Over Broadway” (the musical)

May 19, 2014

This is a fun show, especially for those who enjoy the frothy-light kind of musical that was popular before the genre was taken seriously by critics. The story was second to the singing, dancing and the laughs, and the composers, even the greatest like Kern and Gershwin, had to accept that.

The cleverest thing about turning Woody Allen’s delightful film into a musical was in recognizing it as the perfect vehicle for that kind of entertainment. This show would have been a Broadway hit in 1929, the year it was set. And in Susan Stroman, we have the perfect match of director-choeographer and material.  The American musical theatre is in her DNA, and she doesn’t hold back. She gets her actors to demonstrate spectacular performance skills in dance, song and comic gesture, and all while staying in character. We can see the enormous respect and love she has for the old-style Broadway “shtick” of the past, especially in the witty choreography for the “Let’s Misbehave” duet, a highlight.

The one caveat I have – and it’s a major one – may only bother those who love the film, as I do.  Part of Woody Allen’s genius is to know, even when writing a film, precisely what qualities in an actor will best serve the story. Mostly, he wants to show how a real human being will credibly behave in certain situations, and that this will make us laugh. Chazz Palminteri was so perfect as Cheech because Allen used this fine actor’s voice and facial gestures to show how even an uncultured, violent gangster could start to think of himself as a serious artist, to riotous consequences. Palminteri was funny because his passion and integrity were shown to be genuine, while the faux-artist, the playwright played by John Cusack, was more than willing to “sell out” for success.

These are the two main roles in the story, and it’s a big order to find two professional actors who can portray them, night after night, and sing and dance too! To be brief, Stroman hit the jackpot, big time, with Zach Braff as the playwright. But the talented Nick Cordero, as Cheech, was a letdown. In the film, Cheech progressed from mere annoyance at Olive’s incompetence to contempt and, finally, to uncontrollable rage, as if she was trying to destroy his newly recognized destiny as a great artist. It wasn’t only that she was so bad, but her total indifference to his pain was a personal assault, and demanded the ultimate response. Palminteri was hilarious, and a total delight. But Cordero started as merely annoyed, which was okay, but then pretty much stayed there. We never got to witness the growth of this delusion in Cheech. Because Cordero, and Stroman, failed to drive this home, the laughs just didn’t come.

 

Review: “Traitors”

May 1, 2014
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Chimae Ben Acha as Malika (picture credit Benoit Peverelli and Niko Tavernise)

This film makes good use of what has become a cliché in crime films: the hero, seemingly trapped in a drug deal, gets out of the jam and turns the tables on the mob. We bought this wildly improbable premise as far back as John Guare’s script for Louis Malle’s Atlantic City. I’m buying it again with this Tribeca entry because of solid filmmaking, an appealing cast and the bonus of armchair travel to exotic Morocco. First timer Sean Gullette keeps it tight and colorful, and his own acting background (Darren Aronovsky’s Pi), no doubt contributed to the superior level of the performances.

The heroine, Malika, played by Chimae Ben Acha, is lead singer for the Traitors, an all-female, politically defiant punk rock group in Tangier. She’s told by an agent that they can get studio time for their first demo if they pay the production costs. Determined to get the money, Malika starts a desperate quest that includes posing as a prostitute – and bolting with the cash without being touched – and being a drug mule. The drug job is to drive a car loaded with heroin back to Tangier. Her accomplice, Amal, is an addict and girlfriend of one of the gang. She doesn’t hide her hostility for the beautiful new recruit, and warns her not mess up her “game”. But we’ve already come to expect the unexpected from Malika, who silently waits for the right moment to make a game-changing move of her own. While on the return trip, she notices Amal furtively looking at a piece of paper, and asks her: “Is that your sonogram?”

From that moment, the film morphs into a nerve-jangling thriller, building suspense on two fronts: first, because Malika is an amateur mixed up with ruthless, seasoned criminals and, second, because we still don’t know what the hell she’s up to. Part of the fun is in seeing how each piece in her plan fits into another piece, with surprises all along the way. Sure, credibility is tortured, but this kind of film only works if you care what happens to the characters. Malika is brave, yet vulnerable; compassionate, yet resolute in fighting against a male-dominated culture that treats women as inferiors. We may not be fully swayed to that view, but we never doubt her convictions. Or that she’ll risk her life to defend them.

All performances are good, but Soufia Issami, as Amal, is a standout. Crucial to the film’s success is making us believe that Amal will join in Malika’s scheme. Issami’s subtly shaded performance details her change from distrust to the awareness that Malika is giving her the only chance she’ll ever have for happiness.

At the screening, Gullette emphasized how great it was to have two cinematographers, especially for finding so many locations. This helped to maintain the film’s swift pace as we followed Malika, constantly on the move through so many views of changing streets and countryside. Probably of equal importance was the adroit editing of the renowned Sabine Hoffman.

 

Review: “Human Capital”

April 24, 2014

This film is a hit in Italy, and early response is positive at the Tribeca Film Festival. The audience seemed enthusiastic, although there’s likely a buzz factor when the director and the two glamorous lead actresses show up.

Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi and Fabrizio Gifuni. Photograph by Loris Zampelli

Giovanni (Fabrizio Gifuni) and Carla (Valeria Bruni Tedeaschi)

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Dino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) and Roberta (Valeria Golino)

The prologue shows a bicyclist struck by a car at night, with the car just driving off. We had already seen him as a waiter at a lavish banquet, and he was on his way home. We find out later he will die from his injuries.  So it will be a hit-and-run case movie; it will be told in three parts, each named for a central character. The first part concerns Dino, a middle-aged neer-do-well who is married to, Roberta, a psychologist. This part opens six months before the accident, when Dino picks up his teenage daughter, Serena, at her boyfriend’s house. The boy, Massimiliano, is obnoxious and spoiled,  especially by his mother, Carla, who’s somewhat of a ditz. The boy’s father, Giovanni, is a wealthy hedge fund owner. When he finds this out, Dino can’t pass up the chance, and he lies to Giovanni about his finances in order to buy into the fund. The second section concerns Carla, who spends her days shopping and regretting the theatrical career she abandoned to marry Giovanni. But her passion in life is her son, especially after  the police suspect he is the driver of the car. The final section is about Serena, who had been a mere presence in the film until then. But there were hints earlier that she is hiding a secret about the accident, and we see the reasons for that. By the end of the film, the real driver of the car is sent to prison, but not because the police solve the case. Instead, we see that the cause of “justice” is only served because of a secret deal that saves Dino from financial ruin.

The director, Paolo Virzi, is clearly a talented filmmaker. Frame composition, editing, cinematography and pacing show control and assurance. The talented and attractive cast perform competently, creating sharply defined, if shallow, characters. The main problem I had was with the characters themselves. The first two sections, which are well over half the film’s length, are concerned with characters who are distasteful and/or stupid, and there’s little pleasure in watching them. They are familiar, shallow bourgeois types, presented without insight or humor. The two fathers, in particular, are so repellent that I was irritated by the women who married them, even though they are meant to be sympathetic. Much screen time is also spent on Carla’s affair with a theatre director. Besides having nothing to do with the main story, it includes one of the most pointless and unconvincing sex scenes I can remember. I should also mention that – even in subtitles – a lot of the dialogue rings false, as in bad soap opera. One of many examples is when a group of teenagers sees Serena with Luca, one whispers something like, “Look, there she is with the druggie.” The fact that the story was adapted from an American novel may also explain these awkward moments.

The film improves in the final section, when we are shown events from the daughter’s viewpoint. By the day of the accident, Serena has dumped the worthless Massimiliano and become involved with Luca, an emotionally fragile boy who had gone to prison to protect his uncle, who, incredibly enough, is an even more disgusting person than Dino and Giovanni. Luca is meant to be sympathetic, but is only a generic victim type, the kind you find on your average “Law and Order” episode. Serena, however, as played by the talented Matilde Gioli, in her debut performance, is the moral center of the film. She has inner strength and genuine compassion for others. The final shot is uplifting and hopeful, showing how Serena shrugs off the selfish behavior of the adults around her to help another human being in trouble.

The film is being touted as a hard-hitting probe of financial corruption, but it’s really not. You’ll find a slickly made human drama, intermittently affecting, but marred by phony touches and one-dimensional characters.

Review: “Under The Skin”

April 15, 2014

Would you pay to see a film that was called an allegory about the sexual repression of women in a male-dominated culture? I wouldn’t. But if, instead, you were shown a near naked Scarlett Johansson as an alien creature luring men to death during sex, you just might. Welcome to a growing genre I will call “Feminist Sci-Fi”. This flawed but bracingly original example, directed by Jonathan Glazer, is probably the first near masterpiece in the category.

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Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin.

A long wordless opening suggests an alien landing on earth. We first see her being given the clothing of a dead woman by a man who rides a motorcycle. Whether he is her helper, or her alien leader, is never explained. Looking like a tart, she drives her car aimlessly about Scotland, picking up men who see the promise of fast, zipless sex. Once indoors, she disrobes slowly, seductively, and the men do likewise. Suddenly, without even a touch between them, the men disappear into blackness. This startling image is the most disturbing in the film. The pattern is broken when she picks up a man with a deformed face. They talk in the car, in the only sustained dialogue in the film. They touch and something – empathy? – stirs within her. This mysterious feeling disrupts her mission, and she lets him escape. The “creature” is thus shown to have human vulnerability. Soon, once a man treats her with simple kindness, without carnal overture, she is drawn to him, and they have intercourse. Startled and confused, she sits bolt upright in bed, grabbing a lamp to examine her own genitals. This new awareness in her sets up the film’s violent conclusion. She now feels that her sexuality is real, and is something she must protect. For the first time, she resists a man, and her human cover is torn in the struggle. The man, suddenly terrified, reacts to the woman’s true sexual nature as if she is an invading alien that must be destroyed. Hazard shows confidence in telling the story almost entirely with gesture and wordless action. There is little dialogue, with much in an impenetrable Scottish dialect. The pace is often agonizingly slow, with an overuse of static shots held for no apparent reason. Johansson’s impassive face is the main narrative device, which is both the film’s strength and its weakness. She is shown watching everything around her, without emotion. Of course, this would be what an alien does; but, with no recurrence of these images later in the film, you suspect it’s just padding. The score, by Mica Levi, is the single best element in the film; a constant, droning fury. At times, it seems the film is edited to the music, instead of the other way round. In a brunette wig, Johansson holds you with her dark, solemn beauty until the film’s provocative climax.


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