Review – Under The Skin

If the reward for sitting through endless anodyne Hollywood train wrecks is Jonathan Glazer’s gloriously idiosyncratic Under The Skin then hand over the popcorn and bottomless brown sugar water.

You'll either love or hate Under The Skin. Me? I thought it was mesmeric

You’ll either love or hate Under The Skin. Me? I thought it was mesmeric

Glazer has never been one to shy away from subversion. His brilliant debut Sexy Beast (2000) played with our expectations of what had become an exhausted genre – the British gangster film – by reverse casting hard man Ray Winstone as a quietly terrified retiree and Ben ‘Ghandi’ Kingsley as one of cinema’s most memorable psychopaths.

His astonishing follow-up Birth (2004), meanwhile, remains one of cinema’s most under-appreciated love stories, although it’s as far removed from the Nicholas Sparks school of romance as you can get.

The alien (Scarlett Johannson) goes about her business in Under The Skin

The alien (Scarlett Johannson) goes about her business in Under The Skin

This long-awaited third feature once again finds Glazer ripping up the rulebook by casting Scarlett Johannson as an alien being who adopts the guise of a beautiful English woman to stalk and harvest unwitting men on the streets of Scotland. On the face of it, the casting of one of the sexiest women on the planet to play such a part makes perfect sense. However, Species (1995) this ain’t as Glazer’s deeply disquieting film means the sight of a semi-clad Johannson ends up being both creepy and (ahem) alienating.

This undermining of Johannson’s natural screen allure has also been explored very recently in Spike Jonze’s Her (in which the actress played an operating system) and the two films share similar themes of loneliness and what it means to be human.

The window of the soul reveals much in Under The Skin

The window of the soul reveals much in Under The Skin

When we first observe the alien she is a blank slate, having just taken the body of the dead woman as if newly born into the world. She applies makeup after noticing how cosmetics are used to enhance appearance and gets behind the wheel of an innocuous white van to snare men into a fate that’s as startling as it is unnerving.

Once these men fall under her spell, they willingly allow themselves to be consumed by a pool of black viscous fluid, the purpose of which becomes clear during a moment of hypnotic horror when the alien’s latest victim watches as another man is literally sucked dry. It’s as close to a surreal nightmare as one would ever wish to see.

A victim is soon to learn his fate in Under The Skin

A victim is soon to learn his fate in Under The Skin

As she goes about her business – all the while being closely monitored by another alien who has inhabited the body of a male motorcyclist – we begin to observe increasingly human characteristics in her eyes. She may wear the face of a charming and alluring woman who’s interested in the conversation of her prey, but the windows of the soul come to tell a different story as we register guilt, confusion and repulsion breaking through the veneer.

Glazer placed secret cameras inside the van to film Johannson driving around for real, picking up unsuspecting passers-by and engaging them in conversation to see what would happen. In interviews he’s alluded to great footage that had to be left out because the person concerned didn’t want to sign a release form. It’s a tantalising thought to wonder what other directions the film could have taken had this footage been available.

The mask begins to fall in Under The Skin

The mask begins to fall in Under The Skin

Just as some parts inevitably have a rough and ready feel to them, other sections are stunningly realised, in particular a devastating scene set on a beach involving a surfer, a couple and their baby. The moment shortly afterwards when the motorcyclist returns to the beach to retrieve an object is one of the most starkly chilling sequences this reviewer can recall.

Glazer’s eerie visuals are lent even greater impact by British singer/songwriter Mica Levi’s queasy and discordant score that envelops you in the same way as the mysterious black liquid.

I’ve never been one for star ratings, but it strikes me that anyone giving Under The Skin a fence-sitting three-out-of-five hasn’t properly watched what is one of the most uncompromising, mysterious and polarising films in recent years. You’ll either love or hate it. Me? I thought it was astonishing.

Review – X-Men: Days Of Future Past

Marvel’s most well-worn franchise is back to the future and back to its best in this exhilarating time travelling romp that resolutely refuses to take itself too seriously.

Setting aside the slightly needless set piece involving Magneto raising the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium and chucking it over the White House like a giant donut, X-Men: Days Of Future Past is a genuine contender for blockbuster of the year

Setting aside the slightly needless set piece involving Magneto raising the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium and chucking it over the White House like a giant donut, X-Men: Days Of Future Past is a genuine contender for blockbuster of the year

It’s been 14 years since X-Men arrived like a juggernaut into cinemas and ushered in a new paradigm in Hollywood that shows no signs of abating.

The franchise’s high water mark X2 (2003) still remains one of the most fully realised comic book movies. The same, however, could not be said of its sequel The Last Stand (2006) and the two standalone films featuring the evergreen Wolverine – all of which validated the law of diminishing returns.

1970s era Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) re-enters cerebro with Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

1970s era Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) re-enters cerebro with Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

As seems to happen with most money-spinning comic book series these days, the clocks were turned back and the reboot switch was flipped with X-Men: First Class (2011), an effective superhero flick that used recent history (the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis) to posit an alternative reality in which mutants played a significant part.

The golden thread that linked First Class and X-Men 1.0 was Hugh Jackman’s pithy cameo as Wolverine and the character inevitably plays a crucial role in bridging the two time periods for Days Of Future Past.

Military scientist and businessman Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Military scientist and businessman Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

The other golden thread is director Bryan Singer, who has come home after a patchy recent run that included Superman Returns (2006), Valkyrie (2008) and Jack The Giant Slayer (2013) and in the process delivered the best film in the franchise since his last turn in the big chair with X2.

Wolverine is zapped back in time to 1973 by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to avert a future wherein seemingly invincible man-made robots called Sentinels are within a hair’s breadth of wiping out mutant kind. The situation is so grim that friends-turned-enemies Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) have joined forces to make a last stand (not that one) against the metallic beasts.

Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) sets her sights in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) sets her sights in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Meanwhile, back in ’73, Wolverine must convince a younger, more disillusioned Xavier (James McAvoy) to break Magneto (Michael Fassbender) out of the Pentagon in order for him to help them stop the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing military scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), whose murder convinces President Nixon’s government to implement Trask’s Sentinel programme.

Using time travel to change an event in the past in order to alter the future invariably brings to mind the likes of The Terminator and Days Of Future Past doesn’t try particularly hard in hiding its obvious debt to that film as the Sentinels turn the planet into a mass graveyard in its dystopian opening reel.

1970s era Magneto (Michael Fassbender) tries to stop traffic in X-Men: Days of Future Past

1970s era Magneto (Michael Fassbender) tries to stop traffic in X-Men: Days of Future Past

The film also owes a debt to Star Trek, specifically First Contact and The Voyage Home in its ambition to strike a tone between serious and light-hearted. It’s a tough balance to strike, but one the film carries off with aplomb.

The scenes involving a young Peter Maximoff, aka Quicksilver, are great fun and Evan Peters has a blast in the part of the mutant who’s faster than a speeding bullet. The slo-mo Pentagon kitchen sequence involving a gleeful Quicksilver concocting an elaborate way of getting past the gun-toting guards is an ingenious fusion of special effects, balletic choreography and music (Jim Croce’s Time In A Bottle) that pays off to highly satisfying effect.

A future Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

A future Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Singer just about manages to avoid things slipping into Village People ridiculousness, although Simon Kinberg’s script slips into over-exposition and needless anachronisms, to the extent you half expect Jackman to break the fourth wall and ask ‘are you keeping up?’.

A strength of the film, aside from John Ottman’s nicely judged score, is its ability to juggle a sizeable cast. With the exception of Halle Berry’s increasingly redundant Storm and Anna Paquin’s much-discussed reduction in screen time, pretty much everyone gets their moment to shine, in particular Nicholas Hoult, who continues the good work he put in during First Class as Hank McCoy, aka Beast.

Future Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Future Magneto (Ian McKellen) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) in X-Men: Days of Future Past

Jackman, Stewart and McKellen slip into their respective roles as they would an old pair of shoes, while Lawrence gives Mystique a very human dimension and McAvoy expands greatly on what he did in First Class.

The biggest plaudits must go to the excellent Dinklage, who offers up a different sort of villain from the ones we’re used to seeing. Even the very worst of humanity think they’re doing the right thing and Trask is no different. Singer wisely cast Dinklage, whose diminutive size suggests a harmless industrialist, but whose character exbibits ambitions that are world-changing indeed.

Setting aside the slightly needless set piece involving Magneto raising the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium and chucking it over the White House like a giant donut, X-Men: Days Of Future Past is a genuine contender for blockbuster of the year.

Review – Transcendence

The argument that Hollywood should be making movies that aspire to something smarter than big dumb action hasn’t been well served by this misguided sci-fi disappointment.

In spite of his obvious talent with the camera, Pfister would probably have been better served working on a less ambitious project in order to get properly comfortable in the director's chair

In spite of his obvious talent with the camera, Wally Pfister would probably have been better served working on a less ambitious project in order to get properly comfortable in the director’s chair

Wally Pfister’s directorial debut was among the most highly anticipated films of the year. Certainly the pedigree was there; Pfister’s work as Christopher Nolan’s DoP on such striking works as Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy set pulses racing, while the mouth-watering cast of Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany and Nolan veterans Morgan Freeman and Cillian Murphy promised much.

What a shame then that such promise has been squandered on a movie that fails to turn an interesting central concept into a logical and engaging viewing experience.

Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp) explains his theories in Transcendence

Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp) explains his theories in Transcendence

Depp plays Dr Will Caster, a genius in artificial intelligence whose work to create a sentient computer – a tipping point he calls transcendence – rubs up against an extremist group who shoot Caster and launch a series of terror attacks against tech labs. As Will slowly dies from his wound, his wife and colleague Evelyn (Hall) and best friend Max Waters (Bettany) work on a radical plan to upload his consciousness into a super computer.

Now free to roam online, Will-A.Im (sorry) promises technological nirvana and a better world, but invites suspicion among even those closest to him, including scientist Joseph Tagger (Freeman), as well as FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Murphy).

Scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) are shown around by Will's wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) in Transcendence

Scientist Joseph Tagger (Morgan Freeman) and FBI agent Donald Buchanan (Cillian Murphy) are shown around by Will’s wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) in Transcendence

The thrust of Pfister’s film, based on a script rescued from the Black List, is both intriguing and prescient – have we becomes slaves to technology that’s now moving so fast we can’t control it? Will the ‘singularity’ – the moment when machines achieve the ability to think for themselves – be a defining moment in mankind’s technological revolution or spell our doom, a la Skynet?

However, a sound idea does not a great script make and the cracks quickly start to show. The film takes odd leaps of logic; characters make decisions that aren’t properly explained; and dialogue gets bogged down in expository ramblings that make conversations sound stilted.

The shady Bree (Kate Mara) gets chatting to Max Waters (Paul Bettany) in Transcendence

The shady Bree (Kate Mara) gets chatting to Max Waters (Paul Bettany) in Transcendence

As you’d expect from Pfister’s background, the film looks great. His use of stark lighting is especially impressive and gives the impression of a cold intelligence at work, while the dead-end town of Brightwood, which is turned into Will’s HQ, is an effective location; all be it one Pfister isn’t able to take full advantage of, especially in the film’s lackadaisical final act.

Depp, who must be wondering if his box office magic is on the wane in light of Transcendence‘s and The Lone Ranger‘s disastrous performances, never looks comfortable, least of all when he’s playing a less sardonic version of Holly from Red Dwarf. The further Depp walks away from his more interesting ‘indie’ career choices, the less interested he looks.

Will (Johnny Depp) reaches out to Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) beyond the internet in Transcendence

Will (Johnny Depp) reaches out to Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) beyond the internet in Transcendence

Hall and Bettany are fine actors and do their best, but as the movie goes on they start to look less convinced of the material, while Freeman (whose terrible line – “It will be the end of mankind as we know it” – from the trailer was a stupid marketing decision rather than a Pfister-ism apparently and doesn’t appear in the finished movie) and Murphy are given next to nothing to do.

In spite of his obvious talent with the camera, Pfister would probably have been better served working on a less ambitious project in order to get properly comfortable in the director’s chair. Oh well, at least we have Interstellar to look forward to, right?

Review – Short Term 12

It’s to the immense credit of all concerned that this tale following the lives of the caring staff and troubled teens of a foster care facility manages to bypass the stereotypes and melodrama to deliver a truly affecting piece of cinema.

Short Term 12 is a genuine pleasure and should be regarded as a calling card for both its director and exciting young ensemble

Short Term 12 is a genuine pleasure and should be regarded as a calling card for both its director and exciting young ensemble

A hit at last year’s SXSW, the emotional honesty and intelligence of Short Term 12 is as refreshing as it is rare; as is its ability to break free of the style-over-substance shackles that so often tie down indie movies.

A big reason for this is the cast, led by Brie Larson in a breakout performance as Grace, a supervisor at the titular halfway house whose concern for its neglected kids is so strong that it can prove overpowering, especially when it comes to the facility’s newest addition Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever).

Garce (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr) in Short Term 12

Garce (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr) in Short Term 12

Grace sees a lot of herself in Jayden, an angry and confused teenager struggling to deal with circumstances forced upon her. The film draws parallels between the two (they look so alike they could be sisters) and just as Grace finds that she’s getting through to the trouble youth, the demons of her past creep to the surface and threaten her relationship with boyfriend and co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr).

Short Term 12 is ultimately about our inherent desire and fear of bonding and trusting each other. Marcus (Keith Stanfield, giving an excellent performance) is about to turn 18 and, as a result, must leave the facility. The fear of facing the outside world and giving up the connections he has made in order to form new ones is written on his face and explicit in his self-destructive actions. When he performs a rap he’s created to Mason, the pain Marcus feels is etched into each word, but so is the strength that opening up gives him.

Grace (Brie Larson) tries to connect with Marcus (Keith Stanfield) in Short Term 12

Grace (Brie Larson) tries to connect with Marcus (Keith Stanfield) in Short Term 12

These are kids who have been deprived of care and attention and struggle to adapt when it is offered. Sometimes small tokens, such as a cupcake, are enough. More often than not, these kids just need someone they can relate to.

In much the same way as Jaws‘  Brody, Hooper and Quint, a shared moment comparing scars (in this case caused by self-harm) generates a connection between Grace and Jayden and offers a moment of realisation that neither need be alone to face the pain they hold within.

Mason (John Gallagher Jr) and Nate (Rami Malek) try to calm down tearaway teen Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) in Short Term 12

Mason (John Gallagher Jr) and Nate (Rami Malek) try to calm down tear away teen Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) in Short Term 12

The bond between Grace and Mason is affectionately handled and given an honest edge by the two performers. Mason clearly loves Grace, but is frustrated she won’t fully open up to him, while a shock development in Grace’s life threatens to tip their relationship over the edge.

Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton never ventures into Dangerous Minds cod-inspirationalism or been-there-seen-it grittiness (handheld camerawork aside); rather he earns the affection we feel for each fully rounded major and minor character and lets the story play out.

Short Term 12 is a genuine pleasure and should be regarded as a calling card for both its director and exciting young ensemble.

Review – The Raid 2: Berandal

Topping one of the most jaw-dropping action films in years is an unenviable challenge, but Gareth Evans has done just that with this savage and scintillating follow-up.

Evans has indicated a third and final chapter is on the way and for that we should count ourselves lucky - action movies simply do not come any better than this

Evans has indicated a third and final chapter is on the way and for that we should count ourselves lucky – action movies simply do not come any better than this

Evans announced himself in 2012 with The Raid: Redemption, a down-and-dirty Indonesian action flick that breathed new life not only into martial arts movies but action cinema as a whole.

Action is one of cinema’s most universal genres – its language is that of physicality rather than dialogue, which means foreign language pictures such as The Raid franchise often travel more easily and can find a bigger audience.

SWAT member turned undercover officer Rama (Iko Uwais) in The Raid 2

SWAT member turned undercover officer Rama (Iko Uwais) in The Raid 2

At their best, action movies transcend their genre trappings and become ballets of ballistic extreme. The Raid was one such picture, which not only made a name for Evans, but also for its hugely talented star Iko Uwais, who was working as a delivery man when Evans cast him in his cult debut feature Merantau (2009).

The two reunite for The Raid 2: Berandal (“thug” in Indonesian), which expands greatly on the scope of its predecessor and defines itself as an epic in every sense.

The film picks up where The Raid left off, with rookie special forces officer Rama (Uwais) having survived a near-suicidal ambush on a 15-storey tower block in order to take a brutal crime lord into custody. With his family’s lives in danger, he must infiltrate a deadly Jakarta crime syndicate and take down its leaders, as well as the police and politicians in its pocket.

The angry, embittered Uco (Arifin Putra) in The Raid 2

The angry, embittered Uco (Arifin Putra) in The Raid 2

A big reason why The Raid: Redemption worked so well was its confined setting – a single tower block full of bad guys up against Rama and a rag-tag bunch of fellow SWAT officers. From Berendal‘s first crane shot of nasty goings on in a nondescript field out of the city, Evans signals his intentions; the canvas is going to be much bigger this time, although the predominant colour is still going to be red.

The first reel disorientates the viewer by cutting between groups of characters and different time frames, but as the pieces fall into place what emerges is a clever introduction to the world we’re going to inhabit for the next 150 minutes.

Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman) and Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) get ready for some ultraviolence in The Raid 2

Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman) and Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) get ready for some ultraviolence in The Raid 2

Western cinema has long borrowed from the East and vice versa and Evans, a Welsh national living in Indonesia, brings a liberal dose of both styles to The Raid 2.

Uwais channels Bruce Lee’s kick-ass rage and Jackie Chan’s dogged tenacity into his leading man and the imprint of both of these screen legends can be found all over the film. Likewise, the gangland narrative, as unoriginal as it is, brings to mind The Godfather and Beat Takashi; the stylised violence inevitably invites comparisons to John Woo and Sam Peckinpah; while Rama’s infiltration of Bangun’s (Tio Pakusadewo) criminal enterprise nods to Infernal Affairs and its Western remake The Departed.

Just one of the jaw-dropping fight scenes in The Raid 2

Just one of the jaw-dropping fight scenes in The Raid 2

The Raid stood out from the competition thanks to its eye-popping fight scenes and Berandal ups the ante even further. A massive scrap early on in a muddy prison yard is an early standout and acts as a bone-snapping promise of what’s to come. An epic car chase/fight is masterfully handled, while the final act as Rama battles his way through increasingly bloodthirsty enemies – including the psychopathic ‘Hammer Girl’ (Julie Estelle, whose appearance is straight out of Kill Bill) and ‘Baseball Bat Man’ (Very Tri Yulisman playing the ultimate killer hoodie) – is as good as it gets. Indeed, the climatic duel between Rama and ‘The Assassin’ (Cecep Arif Rahman) is one of the most exhausting and engrossing fight scenes you’ll ever see.

With such a sizeable cast, it would be easy to lose track of certain characters, but Evans keeps the plates spinning and is rewarded with some effective performances from the likes of Yayan Ruhian as a vagabond assassin (which brings to mind Amores Perros‘ vagrant hitman) and Arifin Putra as Bangun’s impetuous son Uco.

Evans has indicated a third and final chapter is on the way and for that we should count ourselves lucky – action movies simply do not come any better than this.