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.

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Review – Noah

Bonkers, bizarre and brilliant in equal measure, it’s fair to say there won’t be another film quite like Darren Aronofsky’s Noah this – or perhaps any – year.

In an age of identikit blockbusters, Noah should be applauded for having the courage of its convictions to offer an experience you won't soon forget

In an age of identikit blockbusters, Noah should be applauded for having the courage of its convictions to offer an experience you won’t soon forget

The Bible’s many film adaptations have invariably been of the epic variety; overblown ‘event’ movies that are as extravagant as they are huge.

While Noah doesn’t skimp on the computer-generated bombast, it’s also the product of a singular vision – one that both captivates and infuriates.

Throughout his career, Aronofsky’s films have centred on obsessively driven characters; whether they be the cast of Requiem For A Dream (2000) seeking the next fix, Natalie’s Portman’s ballet dancer going to any lengths to reach the top of the pile in Black Swan (2010), or Hugh Jackman’s various incarnations of the same character searching for the tree of life in The Fountain (2006).

The 'Creator' gets angry in Noah

The ‘Creator’ gets angry in Noah

Noah represents his most fanatical character yet – a husband and father whose response to an apocalyptic vision received from ‘the Creator’ is to spend years building a giant ark to save the animal kingdom from the impending flood.

The world Noah (Russell Crowe) and his family inhabit has been ravaged by mankind’s greed and corruption. They eke out a nomadic life away from the rest of humanity in a shattered, lunar landscape (Iceland in reality) ruled by Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), descendant of Adam and Eve’s murderous son Cain.

Noah (Russell Crowe) finally feels the rain in Noah

Noah (Russell Crowe) finally feels the rain in Noah

A fearful Tubal-Cain is determined to seize the ark, but must first build an army to overcome the Watchers; crazy-looking fallen angels encrusted in rock who aid Noah in his mammoth task and come across as the craggy cousins of the talking trees from The Lord Of The Rings.

When it finally does come, the flood is impressively staged. The sense of chaotic desperation among Tubal-Cain and his followers to fight their way onto the ark as Noah and the Watchers try to keep them back is both unnerving and edge-of-the-seat stuff. However, the most chilling and indelible image comes later as the last vestiges of mankind cling hopelessly to a rapidly submerging rock, wailing in vain at the nearby ark as Noah blanks out their screams.

Noah's family, son Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), son Shem (Douglas Booth) and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) in Noah

Noah’s family, son Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll), wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), son Shem (Douglas Booth) and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) in Noah

It’s a truly nightmarish moment that sets up the film’s final act as an increasingly dogmatic Noah turns his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), sons Shem (Douglas Booth) and Ham (Logan Lerman) and adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson) against him when he declares his work won’t be finished until the ultimate sacrifice is made.

Just as with The Fountain, Noah is predominately a spiritualist film rather than an overtly religious one (reflective of Aronofsky’s personal beliefs). It also carries an urgent environmental message – as global warming brings with it rising sea levels, scorched earth and dwindling resources, may we too be forced to start again when the proverbial crap hits the fan?

"Take the ark!!" - Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) gets mad in Noah

“Take the ark!!” – Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) gets mad in Noah

The film has a curious mix of the fantastical (a strange, dog-like beast being hunted by Tubal-Cain’s men; the Watchers; huge stars shining brightly in the daytime) and the grittily authentic. In spite of the larger-than-life connotations of the source material, Aronofsky never lets us forget these are human beings making stomach-churning decisions.

The anger and bewilderment expressed by Shem and Ham towards their merciless father when the screams of those left outside the ark are heard is entirely believable. At one point, a sickened Shem pleads to Noah to let them in, pointing out that not everyone can be ‘guilty’. Noah’s response is to state that every human has a darkness inside of them, a point given form earlier in the film when Noah sneaks into Tubal-Cain’s sin-laden camp and sees a vision of himself giving into his base instincts in order to survive.

Have ark, will travel - Noah and co prepare for the storm in Noah

Have ark, will travel – Noah and co prepare for the storm in Noah

By staging the flood halfway through the movie, one imagines Aronofsky aimed for the real drama to take place within the confines of the ark. However, rather than being the dramatic cannonball he was hoping for, this final act curiously fails to engage and ends up going off the deep end. Perhaps it’s Noah’s incessant reiteration that everyone must accept their punishment that ultimately proves the biggest turn off.

Whatever misgivings one may have here are counterbalanced by the much talked about ‘creation sequence’, reinterpreted by Aronofsky’s time-lapsed visuals as the journey of evolution from the big bang (“Let there be light”) to man’s inhumanity to man. It’s a bravura scene that’s worth the price of admission alone.

Noah's son Ham (Logan Lerman) runs for his life in Noah

Noah’s son Ham (Logan Lerman) runs for his life in Noah

In his best performance for years, Crowe gives a truly affecting performance of a man being pushed beyond his limits while carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. While a very physical performer, Crowe does his best work with his eyes by showing the terrible emotional pain he endures in order to carry out the Creator’s work.

Connelly’s Naameh is the crux both we and her family lean on to navigate our way through these turbulent waters and her performance is excellent. Winstone does what he does best as the unhinged Tubal-Cain, who appears to be history’s first Cockney, while an ancient-looking Anthony Hopkins has a twinkle in his eye as Noah’s grandfather Methuselah.

In an age of identikit blockbusters, Noah should be applauded for having the courage of its convictions to offer an experience you won’t soon forget.