Rob Harmon’s Picks 7/15/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksUnder the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

If an alien intelligence were inserted into our midst, what would it make of us? And, if it looked like us, might it eventually begin to develop thoughts like a human being?

Many a science fiction film has delved into just these sorts of philosophical questions in the past but few have done it with the rigorousness and the sheer gravitas of British cinematic visionary Jonathan Glazer in UNDER THE SKIN.

The film begins with mesmerizing imagery as a type of alien intelligence is born or brought into being, and which eventually takes the form of a woman (Scarlett Johansson). After a quick stop at the mall for some clothes and makeup she begins to move freely about the cities of Scotland—mainly at night—in a white van.

She is cruising, or hunting, for men, who seem to satiate her thirst and to be the object of a sort of vampiric inner need. Let’s just say that once she brings these men home they may be expecting a night of bliss but end up having to deal with something else, something which resembles a large mass of black ooze (!), as well as the mysterious, leather-clad motorcycle rider (Jeremy McWilliams) who operates as the woman’s keeper.

Business is good for the woman and the motorcycle man until she hears a child’s scream for the first time and later meets a young man so outcast by society that she is jarred into being, so to speak. She begins to regard herself in the mirror, developing a conscience—or something like it—in a series of encounters which recalls Jacques Lacan’s “mirror moment” of psychological development. She flees her handler and randomly heads towards the mountains where things begin to fall apart quickly, and the film hurtles towards a brain-melting, yet oddly peaceful, conclusion.

By turns kinky, hypnotic, chilling, and hilarious, this is a freak-out of a movie which recalls past collisions of art, horror, and eroticism, like Georges Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE, Andrzej Zulawski’s POSSESSION, and the films of Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol, but does them one better.

Additionally, the film knowingly winks its machine-like eye in referencing the works of Kubrick such as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and THE SHINING, but in its meditation on the nature of human identity its closest antecedent is perhaps John Frankenheimer’s woefully under-appreciated paranoia-fest SECONDS (1966) (wherein bored and buttoned-down career man/drone Rock Hudson is kidnapped one day and given a new face—and a new life to go along with it!).

Johansson deserves credit for taking on such a difficult role and making it her own. The film derives much power from her hesitant, alien-like responses to things such as human gender roles or the taste of food. With her bedraggled mop of black hair and cheap clothes—a ratty fur coat, tight, acid-washed jeans, and a pair of fur-lined and heeled boots—she is put through the meat grinder in a way which recalls another suffering cinematic female: the character played by Emily Watson in Lars von Trier’s BREAKING THE WAVES. The film’s other star is the landscape of Scotland itself, which is depicted in a range of moods, from the grey ugliness of urban decay to the serene and quiet beauty of the mountains.

The film’s cinematography and sound design are superb, adding much to the film’s strangely off-kilter register. Parts of the movie were reportedly filmed with hidden cameras and the use of non-actors and this definitely rings true. Many of the film’s early sequences with Johansson meandering about in public are given an especially creepy and unnerving edge due to their detached, “surveillance camera”-type feel. But equally important in this regard is the score, written by British experimental pop musician Mica Levi, whose discordant sounds and strains will haunt the memory.

Director Jonathan Glazer’s (SEXY BEAST, BIRTH) profoundly visual eye is well on display here, such as in the beautifully dreamy sequence toward the end when the woman takes a nap in a mountain cabin: the next shot is of the mountain’s swaying trees seen from above and an image of the recumbent female is superimposed over it, alien and nature for the moment fusing as one. There is something so subconsciously disturbing about this film that it is hard to tear one’s eyes away.

If you want to know what contemporary movie will be blowing peoples’ minds thirty years from now, what film teenagers and young adults will be staying up late at night to watch and discuss, look no further: cult movie of the future, thy name is Under the Skin!

Rob Harmon’s Picks 5/27/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksHer (dir. Spike Jonze, 2013)

Occasionally science fiction films come along which are so unnervingly close to our own present situation that it can be difficult to parse out what we are already experiencing and what is conjecture on the part of the creator’s imagination. A perfect example of this is Spike Jonze’s latest film, and winner of last year’s Academy Award for best original screenplay, HER.

Her is highly unusual for a film of its type, its terrain emotional, psychological, dreamy, and reflective rather than concerned with the usually grandiose issues dealt with in movies which are set in the future: primal fears of war, economic collapse, invasion, and technological advancement. If Her seems claustrophobic and more than a little bleak it is because its essential theme is our increasingly narrow and compromised emotional space—a shrinking beachhead of sanity—in a society which is continually being crowded out and run over by a clutter of static and inane sounds and images.

The film begins with an arresting close-up of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) as he stares into the camera and dictates a passionate letter somewhere off-screen, yet his viewpoint is confusing: could these possibly be his own feelings? Surely he is voicing the sentiments of someone much older than he could possibly be? This riddle is resolved once the action cuts away and the audience recognizes that Theodore is in an office—a über-chic one, at that, modern and minimalist—and that this is “the future,” where Theodore and his co-workers “write” letters—in a wide range of styles and levels of intimacy—on demand for their unseen clients. The effect of these early sequences, as the camera follows Theodore through an office filled with synthetic and contrived emotions and tracking along with him on his commute home through a familiar yet strange cityscape, is hypnotizing and magisterial, though also downbeat and mellow.

We soon find that Theodore lives a simple life. He works, he goes home, he daydreams about his faded marriage to Catherine (Rooney Mara) whom he finds endless ways to delay his divorce with. He occasionally hangs out with frumpy friend and neighbor Amy (Amy Adams)—a video game programmer—and her neurotically controlling husband Charles (Matt Letscher). He spends a lot of time on the computer, answering e-mail, playing games, searching for a quick and anonymous phone sex partner (voice of Kristen Wiig in a hilarious sequence), and mainly interfacing with the male, monotone voice of his operating system through a small earpiece and a tiny remote module which fits snugly in the palm of the hand (about the size of an old-fashioned little black address book). Soon, Theodore notices that a new operating system with artificial intelligence has hit the market and he picks it up. When installing the new OS, the machine asks him a few basic questions about himself and whether he would like a male or a female voice; he replies “female.” It thereupon addresses him in a smoky, husky female voice (Scarlett Johansson) and names itself “Samantha.”

As Theodore navigates the stiflingly lonely frontiers of his existence he comes to rely more and more upon Samantha, not just for information and data retrieval, but for her growing emotional maturity. Soon, it is clear that love has bloomed for both Theodore and Samantha but what sort of consequences can there be for a man-computer relationship in a not-so-distant future?

The experience of watching Her is disorienting and a little bit strange as it is a love story where only one of two characters has a body, presenting the viewer with some interesting challenges in where to apply their mental focus. Luckily, the film enjoys an enormously talented lead actor in Phoenix, who is able to defy the odds and hold the picture together. His Theodore is a uniquely sympathetic introvert, whose shambling Everyman presence, glasses, and bland mustache disguise a rich emotional life. If any man could be said to be “passed by time,” it is surely the withered and reflective Theodore. The other performances in Her are equally good top-to-bottom, from important supporting roles like that of the continually impressive Adams right down to a bit voice part by Jonze himself as an ornery pipsqueak of an AI video game character.

The music in Her, by indie superstars The Arcade Fire, is appropriately elegiac and moody and the beautifully muted camerawork is by upstart Dutch cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, THE FIGHTER, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY). Jonze, who—like the subject of last week’s post Jonathan Glazer—got his start in the biz with acclaimed work in the music video field, is best known as the director of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION. His latest work, charting emotional fallout of a decidedly futuristic but eerily-familiar variety, finds him in full command of his powers.