“Under the Skin” Review

Under the Skin is the type of film that is simple enough to describe in its story, but maddening to comprehend in how it was presented. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien living in the skin of a human body. She is not a creature that specifically has plans of world domination nor is she particularly seen as a frightened child curiously trying to understand Earth’s culture. Johansson’s character is more perplexed about her identity and examination of human beings from a silent mental analysis. She wants to learn more about the human race and how she herself can or cannot mend herself into the folds of its fabric.

The very first shot pulls back from an iris as we hear the female voice struggle to pronounce and enunciate the English language. She sounds out simple words slowly and in repetition to get it just right. After her presumable motorcycle assistant hauls a female body out of a ditch, the setting switches to a sterile, white plain where the nude figure of Johansson’s character strips down the dead woman who looks exactly as she does. Though now concealed in clothing, she knows that there will be others who may discover her secrets. Her identity as Laura must be flawless less her alien presence be discovered.

For the entire film, Laura drives around Scotland in white van talking to various men with the motorcyclist not far behind her. Some of these men are simple strangers, some of them are violent punks. One of which is a lonely man with the disfigurement of neurofibromatosis (a series of facial tumors of which the real actor is afflicted with).

What follows is a dance of temptation and examination as she lures in men to her flesh. The world literally turns into a black canvas as she strips and the men follow doing the same. The farther the men progress, the deeper they literally sink into the inky black below. It’s eerily quiet in these moments with a piercing, lone violin on the soundtrack. We see little of what actually happens to these men once they are sucked under into the dark void. All they leave behind is a floating sheet of shed male flesh that wavers and contort. The mind reels at just what is trying to be said about sexuality or the perception of sexes.

What I found most intriguing about the movie is that it’s a jigsaw puzzle that never ends. You watch it once and think you have it all pieced together for what is being said. But then you watch it a second time and notice something new in the visuals. Maybe its message is less about man’s fear of the opposite sex, but a woman’s physical repulsion to the fragility of sexual congress. Or perhaps those scenes of dark intimacy seem to suggest an indescribable separation between the two sexes. Or maybe Laura’s journey is meant to symbolize the mutating morality and mortality of humanity. Or is it really saying nothing at all?

This is the type of artistic film that is enough to drive a viewer mad. It’s a rubix cube that keeps changing colors and shifting directions where the easily frustrated will chuck it at the wall in anger. For that reason, I completely understand why many would hate such a film as it was booed at the Venice film festival. Critics were divided. Some called it laughably bad while others hailed it as one of the best films of the year. It should be clear from its inclusion on this list where I stand as I tend to favor a film that challenges its viewer with subtext. I don’t claim to get the movie because the thrill of the entire experience is trying to comprehend its meaning.

The key to this whole experience lies in Johansson’s acting. The blank look that many criticize her for plays to her advantage. Her character is one that internally struggles to comprehend the body she occupies and the environment it lives in. After a brief sexual encounter, she immediately leaps out of bed to shine the lamp on her genitals. She is both frightened and amazed at the sensation and change in her physical form. Later on, she simply stares at her naked form in a mirror, slightly moving various muscles to see how they all work. She is infatuated with the human form in a way that appears both curious and mysterious. It’s a startling vision of an outsider’s eye on the human race in how we seem and communicate with others.

The last form of Laura’s true alien form is one of creepiest sci-fi moments I can think of in the last decade. Johansson sits in a snowy forest slowly peeling back the exposed skin from her head. Ripping off the flesh exposes her true alien form that appears black. Her last moments in the film find her cold, vulnerable and in pain.

Most of the time we have aliens in movies they come down for one of two reasons: they either want to say hello (E.T., Starman) or they want us out of the picture (War of the Worlds, Independence Day). We’re never revealed Laura’s true intention for this journey in a human body. Perhaps her race is intelligent enough to not presume too much about Earth before revealing their true forms either start a dialogue or start invading. Maybe they picked up our transmissions of various alien invasion movies and decided to go ahead cautiously with exploring humanity.

This is an elusive piece of movie art I find endless infatuation for its evocative and quiet tone. The best movies in my mind are the ones that present something visually challenging and leave you questioning the picture long after the credits have rolled. If I were still in college, it’s the type of film I’d stay up until 4am arguing with my roommate over various theories until we start dissecting the picture frame-by-frame.

For that very reason, I can only recommend the movie with a disclaimer. Those who are seeking some simple entertainment of an alien discovering Earth culture will be sorely frustrated to the point that they shout “what the hell was that?”, stop the movie and forget about it. But those who want a piece of cinema art that dares you to define it will whisper “what the hell was that?”, rewind the movie and watch it endlessly. Any movie that can leave audiences that divisive and perplexed is just damn good moviemaking in my book.

“Gravity” Review

Science fiction has the power to make outer space seems like wondrous frontiers of adventure and battles. In the case of ‘Gravity’, however, we’re taken on a terror ride in Earth’s orbit that seems a little too real. It’s movies like this that make me a little less disappointed my childhood dreams of being an astronaut didn’t pan out.

The film centers on two astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Their shuttle is obliterated by an orbiting debris storm that shreds anything in its path. With limited oxygen and jetpack fuel, the two must travel from space station to space station in search of a landing craft before the debris storm catches up with them. There are no extra characters or subplots as the movie is laser focused on the stunning journey back to Earth.

On one level, ‘Gravity’ sounds like a Roland Emmerich film with Murphy’s Law in full effect. Shuttles are smacked around by debris and interiors of space stations catch on fire. Surprisingly, though, there is a tremendous amount of heart in Sandra Bullock’s character as she strategically makes her journey home. She doesn’t have much to come back to which forces her to find a reason to live when the odds of survival reach critical lows.

Props needs to be given to director Alfonso Cuaron and his top-notch visual effects team that sell outer space better than any other film out there. Everything from the camera swinging around a zero-g environment to the little details of how the actors move in such a space is a real visual treat.  You never once feel like you’re just watching two actors bounce around a sound stage. The icing on the cake is the less-is-more sound editing in how all of the explosions and destruction in space is kept silent. The quiet nature of these scenes really enhances the chilling scares of the black void.

‘Gravity’ is destined to be a sci-fi classic not for its story or even characters, but the emotion and brutal atmosphere of how ruthless outer space is portrayed. Yes, it’s essentially a technological thrill ride, but it happens to be the best of its kind on all fronts. It does away with the fat that usually accompanies disaster/survival films and delivers on every nail-biter moment with genuine thrills. You don’t see too many technological marvels of cinema with such an emotional and focused core which is what makes ‘Gravity’ such an epic in my book.

“Doctor Who: Day of the Doctor” Review

While I have really dug the 50 years of Doctor Who for all its incredible stories and cheap effects, I’ve never really dug the reunion-style anniversary specials. Sure, it’s kind of cool to see multiple iterations of the iconic space-travelling Doctor in the same episode, but the stories were hardly the highlights of the series. The Three Doctors pretty much had William Hartnell wheeled out for a few lines and The Five Doctors edited in footage of Tom Baker from an unfinished episode. The plots were essentially written around the possibility of rounding up as many Doctor actors as possible. So I was a little hesitant about this 50th anniversary which brought together Matt Smith and David Tennant. However, a strong script and a great guest spot by John Hurt as the “secret doctor” manage to make this a superb special that rises above the others.

Similar to the other anniversary specials, three generations of the time-traveling Doctor are thrown together by a key event. The center of the story is a forgotten version of the Doctor (John Hurt) during the cataclysmic event known as the Time War. The war in which the Daleks and the Time Lords battle for the fate of time and space was brought to a close when the Doctor activates the Time Lock, trapping the Daleks and Time Lords forever. However, before he pushes the button, the entity of Bad Wolf (Billie Piper) opens a portal in time to witness his future incarnations if he goes through with his plan.

The old and worn Doctor happens upon both the 10th (David Tennant) and 11th (Matt Smith) versions of himself in different time periods. The 11th Doctor is trying to solve the mystery of the missing subjects of paintings in modern London while the 10th Doctor is in the 1500’s dealing with a Zygon threat. The two incidents are actually connected which brings together both of them as well as the forgotten Time War Doctor. But the solution to this Zygon threat may also hold the key for rewriting the history of the Time War.

This special manages to succeed as both a solid story and a reunion of sorts. The characters are not just trotted out for the sake of seeing them again as there is plenty going on for every character to shine. Guest star John Hurt really brings his A-game here completely inhabiting the role of grumpy, weary Doctor tired and worn from the Time War. His chemistry with the goofy David Tennant and the exuberant Matt Smith was priceless. And, thankfully, the majority of the film has them all working together to not only solve a common problem, but discover more about themselves.

There’s a brilliant moment when John Hurt asks the two Doctors if they remember how many children there were on Gallifrey before he activated the Time Lock. David Tennant remembers the exact number while Matt Smith has forgotten it over time. You really get a sense of how the characters have changed and what they think of themselves for the choices they’ve made in the past (even though we’re really only meeting one of them for the first time). It’s a solid build-up for the grand climax that not only reshapes the lore of Doctor Who, but also gives a chance for the grandest reunion of them all with all incarnations of the Doctor involved. There is even a brief glimpse of the next Doctor and a surprising cameo role by one of the notable actors of the series.

Special effects wise, this is the biggest production I’ve seen out of the series to date. Just the brief battle scenes of the Time War on Gallifrey are unbelievably epic in scale and detail. Large fleets of starships bombard the planet, troops defend the planet with laser rifles and the Daleks go down in glorious explosions.

The main villains of this special, the Zygons, were a bold choice given their strange designs. Thankfully, they come off fearsome thanks to some top-notch practical and CGI effects. All the sets from the art gallery to the historic countryside look fantastic. There are too many memorable shots to pick just one as a favorite. The opening scene where the TARDIS is airlifted to the scene, the moment when all three Doctors meet, the stand-off in an underground bunker and even the expected shot of all 12 doctors together look spectacular.

Showrunner Steven Moffat has managed to achieved what I never thought I’d see: a Doctor Who anniversary special that may be the best of the entire franchise. It continues the story of the character, rewrites the timeline, takes notable risks and is just a solidly written piece. Usually with Doctor Who, I try to look past much of its shortcomings or ironically go along with them to be entertained. Day of the Doctor is genuinely enjoyable all the way through. As a fan of the show, this is the best one could hope for from a 50th anniversary special.

“Man of Steel” Review

It’s been a long time since there has been a decent Superman movie. Superman 3 and Superman 4: The Quest for Peace were lackluster to the say least and Superman Returns was more of a love-letter than an actual remake or sequel. In the crafty hands of Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan, Man of Steel manages to be the Superman I’ve been waiting for. He doesn’t explode on to the screen with the same resonance as Batman’s reimagining, but it does lay a solid foundation for the primary-colored cape.

Told in a slightly non-linear fashion, we get to see the last son of Krypton rise to the title of Superman. The film explores how Clark Kent learns to find his place in the world and cope with his powers that become painfully overwhelming at times. In his early adult years, Clark Kent wanders the globe just trying to blend in, but always seems to end up using his powers. Eventually, he discovers the secret of his alien race via an alien vessel buried in the ice. At which point, we finally get to see the iconic suit. It took an hour, but it was well worth the build-up.

Our antagonist for the movie is Zod; not an original villain, but a strong choice that fits with the story. Having escaped the Phantom Zone for his crimes against Krypton’s council, Zod wants to turn Earth into a new Krypton with a giant gravity-smashing device. In addition, he also wants to retrieve the vital codex of his people who were actually stored within Superman’s DNA. Realizing he doesn’t need Superman alive to retrieve this information, it isn’t long before the two duke it out in a city-smashing brawl that makes Superman 2’s fight look like a minor scuffle.

This is a much different Superman than the usual movie affair. Unlike like previous incarnations which dive straight into the heroism theatrics, fun though they may be, this is man struggling to both function with and properly use his superpowers. It gives a reason for why Clark dons the cape and why he decides to lead the life we know he’ll pursue. The scene where he first learns to fly by taking massive leaps and bounds is the best moment of the film as we actually get to see Superman take shape before our eyes.

This is not a perfect movie. It has some pacing problems and the third act fight scene goes on a little too long. And the biggest concern seems to be the violence in how Superman seems to decimate Metropolis and ultimately murder his enemies. But this is actually the most unique aspect of Superman as a character. When he reaches the climax which results in him murdering his foes, he’s frustrated and angry. He realizes he has to be smart about how he uses his powers and foils the bad guys. This is a man still struggling to find his place in the world and how to be a hero. I enjoyed the development in how he still has a ways to go instead of just quickly jumping into the suit and knowing exactly what to do.

For all its questionable flaws, Man of Steel is on the same level as Batman Begins. And that movie had a few problems as well, but the sequel more than learned from those mistakes. That’s why I was so excited after seeing Man of Steel for how much potential a sequel can hold for being the best Superman movie since the original. At any rate, Superman is back and I couldn’t be happier.