Under the Skin

 

Jonathan Glazer is not exactly a prolific film-maker. Prior to Under the Skin, his films include Sexy Beast and Birth, both very unique films in their own right. Under the Skin however is something different entirely, and is not a film for everyone.  On the surface it is a film about a beautiful extraterrestrial being awakening on Earth and collecting human males for some unclear purpose. In my mind it is to collect their skins for further alien visitors to disguise themselves with, but that is just my interpretation. The full motive is never made clear.

However, that is just the surface level. Dig a little deeper and you find a film that looks at people from the outside in, and studies the way we deal with strangers. Scarlett Johansson, in a riveting  almost dialogue free performance, plays the alien in disguise. As she is on the hunt, we see how men react to her beauty at the expense of all else.   It is interesting to see the reactions as stereotypical gender roles are reversed.  The confusion that she emits when presented with crowds  of women, or acts of genuine empathy, feel very real and create an arc for this seemingly distant character. Her experiences with human kind change her, slowly but surely.

The film is awash in hypnotic imagery, and long slow takes lull you into a false state of calm that make the film’s few shocking moments really jarring. Glimpses into what the captives experience are surreal and beautiful. When they take a turn for the grotesque, the image is all the more powerful for the beauty it is juxtaposed with.

As I said, the film is not for everyone. Those looking for a tight linear narrative will likely be left scratching their heads, and those who don’t appreciate film-makers like Kubrick who know the impact of a lingering shot will likely end up bored. However, if you are ready for a surrealist journey through the human condition, then I highly recommend this character study wrapped in a sci-fi skin.

 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

 

Marvel really has done something astounding with their film franchise, creating a series of films and television shows that stand on their own individually, but together are greater than just the sum of their parts. Not content to just adapt their characters to the screen, Marvel has adapted the comic format. The comics’ ongoing tales that weave in and out of each other and captivated me so much in the 80′s and 90′s and sometimes still today have been reinterpreted in an ambitious ongoing film cycle. I can’t decide what is more astounding, that Marvel are actually doing this, or how well they are pulling ir off..

Captain America: The Winter soldier is the latest in the ongoing saga, and amazingly this far into the cycle, is one of the best. Winter Soldier has one of the tightest plots for a Marvel film so far, and yet is still bursting with the intense action you want in a comic book film. Steve Rodgers is still a man out of time, but not in the same way he was at the end of the first Cap film or in the Avengers. He is adapting to modern popular culture and technology just fine. It is all the gray in modern ethics and politics that leave him confounded. He does not want to just obey orders, he wants to be a good man, and in modern times that path is not clear-cut. In Winter Soldier the enemies come from within and without, and Cap is no longer sure who he can trust. I am going to try to discuss the film without spoiling the twists and turns in the plot, but suffice it to say that at every turn, the obstacles for Cap have both physical and emotional heft.

This film also has massive consequences for the Marvel continuity. It was exciting to see that Marvel was not afraid to let this film have far-reaching effects on all the other franchises as opposed to saving the big happenings for a team filled Avengers film. I eagerly to see how the fallout from this film is dealt with in both the Agents of Shield TV show and the upcoming films.  

Winter Soldier also deals with a very timely political subject matter, and it was nice to see a tent-pole film with something on its mind. At the core of the plot is SHIELD’s launch of three  3 interlinked hover craft assault vehicles, tied to personal data of the population,  to prevent terrorist and other threats before they happen. Clearly the film makers have today’s political climate in their cross-hairs as the film stands as a condemnation of drone technology and the loose security of our personal information. There are questions raised about a climate where phone records, computer activity, and personal history are all traced by vague government entities. Again, nice to see more than things going boom.

As I watched the film with my nine-year-old son, I remembered how at his age we could only dream about these characters coming to life in such a grand way. How lucky our children are to have this addition to their imaginations. The Mighty Marvel machine rolls on, and long may it roll!

 

 

 

 

Noah

 

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is a great many things. But before I get to those, I’d like to discuss what Noah is not. Noah is not a slavish, Ten Commandments-style re-telling of the biblical tale of  Noah’s ark. It has many of the pieces of that tale, and certainly is true to it thematically. However, rather than being a note for note recreation of  the bible tale,  Aronofsky’s film uses the original as  a springboard for the film he has chosen to make. Some folks take issue with this off the bat, which brings us to the second thing Noah is not. Noah is not a Godless work that takes aim at religion in any way. In the film, God is referred to as the Creator. Repeatedly. And often. The Creator is ever-present in this tale, as are his miraculous works, meditations on faith, and other methods of indicating his presence.

So what IS Noah? Well, for starters it is a fantasy epic. It is anachronistic, existing out of time and place, and it is filled with wondrous sights. It is full of adventure and drama, and at the surface can be enjoyed simply as spectacle. It is visually beautiful and dramatically full, and works well as a film on that basic level. Russell Crowe stands tall as a Noah full of grit and determination and Jennifer Connelly is haunting as Naameh,  a wife who is willing to follow her husband, up to a crucial point. Anthony Hopkins’ wise grandfather figure Methuselah is touching and resonant. The fallen angels are a digital effects marvel.  

However, Noah is also a lot more. Noah is a parable addressing man’s role as steward of the Earth and it’s inhabitants. A line is clearly drawn between stewardship and dominion. Animals are innocent beings, and those who kill them, for food or otherwise, are clearly denoted as being of the line of Cain, who committed the original murder. Going against the Creator’s intended role of man, that of protector and shepherd to the earth and its animals, is one of the clear signs that man has strayed and the world needs to start again.

Abel’s murder at the hand of Cain hangs heavy over the film. Clearly this is the demarcation point, as Noah is a descendant of the line of Seth, the third brother. The descendants of Cain stand in opposition to Noah, and in addition to mistreating the animals, they are clearly linked to industrialization, and subsequently the war machine. Noah stands as a condemnation of man’s warring nature, and of the harm done to the earth in the name of industrial progress. In an anachronistic example of this theme, Tubal-Cain, leader of the descendants of Cain, has crafted a rudimentary Gun, which he uses in the charge against the Watchers, fallen angels who are encased in the rock they were cast down into, who now side with Noah in hopes of returning to the creator’s good graces.  

In the films latter portion, Noah faces a crisis of conscience. He has decided that while the world must start again, mankind must end. The line of man will end with Noah’s youngest, Japheth. Noah  therefore determines that he will not bring wives aboard the ark for his two youngest sons. His eldest, Shem, loves Ila, who joined Noah’s family when they saved her at a young age. Noah is not concerned as he believes Ila barren. However, with Methuselah’s intervention on behalf of Naameh, Ila has conceived. Will Noah now need to kill his own grandchild?

Here Noah becomes an exploration of extremism. Driven by his own faith, Noah has become so convinced that he is intended to bring upon the end of mankind he fails to see the Creator’s miracle at work in providing the path for mankind to rise anew. Religious extremism has the potential for disastrous consequences. Noah’s refusal to aid his middle son Ham in rescuing a young woman to be his wife aboard the ark turns Ham against him, with also potentially devastating fallout. Had Noah seen past his own righteous arrogance to see the spark of love in Ham he would not irreparably damage his relationship with his son. The film leaves subtle hints at the later biblical repercussions of this rift between Noah and Ham.

Noah the film stands a triumph of ambition, and a wonder of a film to come through the studio system. Deep and full of meaning, while at the same time full of visual splendor, Noah is a feast for both the eye and the mind. Not to be missed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

300: Rise of an Empire

In 2006 300 was a surprise hit, with director Zach Snyder pushing the film to great heights of stylized violence and presenting a charismatic tragic hero in Leonidas, played by Gerard Butler. Based on Frank Miller’s graphic novel, 300 told the story of the heroic last stand of an army of 300 Spartans against the mighty Persian invasion led by God-King Xerxes. The exuberant action, heroics, and style-above-all approach worked to create a new action classic.

Eight years later sees the release of 300: Rise of an Empire, a sequel that actually serves as  prequel, parallel story, and sequel. Noam Murro takes over the director’s chair, but Zach Snyder is still very present as writer and producer. The film spans a lot of territory, starting with  the origin of Xerxes the God-King and his warrior-woman Naval Commander Artemisia ( A scene stealing Eve Green). We also see the rise of our new hero, Themistocles of Athens, whose unwitting role in the rise of the Persian empire leaves him focused on the goal of uniting all of Greece to oppose the Persian invasion. Sullivan Stapleton does not give Themistocles the same level of charm that Leonidas had in the first film, but his heroics and sense of brotherhood carry though enough to keep us rooting for him. As Themistocles rallies Greece to withstand the invasion, the events of the first film unfold so while we witness the battles between Themistocles and Artemisia, Leonidas is unseen battling Xerxes to his sacrificial end. The film then continues past the events of the first film, as Themistocles seeks to rally the remaining Spartans against the might of Xerxes and Artemisia.  

The choice to have the film wind in and out of the first film’s events works well, but make no mistake; it is not clever scripting that is the draw here. The amazing stylized battle scenes and hyper violence are still the focus, and they do not disappoint. Much of the action shifts to the sea, and the naval battles are thrilling. However they do become a tad repetitive after a while, and the  format of Artemisia sending in generals one at a time to see how they fare against Greece while Themistocles adopts new strategies yields an almost video game type rhythm…how do we defeat the next boss level?

For the most part this is a minor quibble, and the film is much more enjoyable than you would expect for a follow-up that took eight years to develop. I saw the film in RPX 3D, and the depth effects were plentiful and effective. As blood splattered battles filled the screen, I was left with a grin.  It may not attain the classic action film status of 300, but Rise of an Empire is a worthy and fun sequel.

Grand Piano

This is going to be a shorter review than normal. However, I caught Grand Piano on in demand last night and wanted to share a few thoughts.

Grand Piano works on the level of sheer tour de force cinematography and nail-biting tension. The plot is somewhat absurd, and the twists that follow are even more so, but the performances are great, and the use of the camera is stunning. Think Brian De Palma meets Argento at his most frenetic, and you have an idea of the mise en scene at work here. Elijah Wood plays a masterful pianist returning to the stage after a lengthy absence following a breakdown while trying to perform a notoriously difficult piece. Already a jagged bundle of nerves, he is sent over the edge by a message  in his sheet music as he begins to perform, telling him that he will die if he misses a note in tonight’s performance.

Grand Piano is insanely tense, yet it is playful at the same time. You will be on the edge of your seat, but you will be enjoying yourself as well. As the plot plays out, there are moments so absurd that I could not help but smile, and yet somehow I never lost the intense suspense at work here. Wood’s performance is excellent, but for me the camera was the star of the show; swooping and gliding and for a stellar moment even split-screening its way into my psyche. Yes this is in many ways a case of style over substance, but when the style is this much fun I won’t complain.

Byzantium

With Byzantium Neil Jordan weaves a tapestry of vampire lore that is breathtakingly beautiful, darkly haunting, and surprisingly touching. The film focuses on the unending lives of mother and daughter vampires,  Clara and Eleanor. Clara is a seductress, using her sexuality to make her unending way in the world, and daughter Eleanor is weary of her  mother’s lifestyle. By flashing back and forth through time, we not only learn the tragic story of Clara and Eleanor’s origins, but also get a sense of the slow grinding nature of endless time, and how it wears on these eternal souls.

The vampire origins in Byzantium are unique, and regulated by an overseeing vampire brotherhood. The vampires in the world of Byzantium have very specific codes they live by as far as secrecy and who is allowed to “live” as a vampire. For example, women are forbidden to share the secret of the creation of the undead life. In this patriarchal vampire society, Clara is an anomaly, and eventually a target for the brotherhood as she has broken their code by “creating” Eleanor. Clara constantly keeps Eleanor on the move without explaining the true reason–running from the brotherhood. 

There is a pervasive melancholy throughout Byzantium. Eleanor is unable to reconcile her past, and yet it fully shapes the being that she is. This is the films greatest theme, that you cannot escape your past. For as much as Clara imposes on Eleanor to look forward and leave the past behind them, Eleanor is unable to do so. Constantly attempting to write and share her story, Eleanor is consumed by her past. She soon meets Frank, a sickly young  man in college and the two share an attraction that Eleanor struggles against. However when they both take a writing class together, Eleanor finally take the chance to share her story, an act that moves the film towards its final confrontations. It is also an act that leads Eleanor towards some sort of reconciliation; an understanding of her past and its influence on her and a  casting off of the shackles it has around her. After all, what is a life  not shared?

If I am being somewhat vague on details with the plot, it is because I want to leave the film its chance to cast a spell over you. Byzantium is not a briskly paced film, but it burrows into you, enthralling you with lush imagery, fascinating characters, rich lore, and unexpected emotions. There are moments of violence and gore, but they are sprinkled throughout and are not the focus here.  At times I felt as though I were watching a vampiric twist to Les Miserables, other times a Noir crime film, and still others a European horror film.  But the tone is never uneven, the threads all weave together, and in the end Eleanor sees she may not be as different from her mother as she believed. Byzantium is not to be missed.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Through book, film, and game I have been a frequent visitor to Middle Earth for most of my life, never seeming to to get enough of Tolkien’s world. In The Lord of the Rings trilogy Peter Jackson did the impossible. He took a well-loved series of classic fantasy novels and created what I consider a masterpiece trilogy of films. From the peaceful Shire to a tragedy laden victory at Mount Doom, I was enthralled for three films. I eagerly awaited each film, and gorged on the home video extended editions.

When the stars finally aligned for production to begin on the Hobbit, following a complicated extended pre-production period, I was of course excited. When it was announced that the Hobbit would be spread across three films, I was cautiously optimistic. The Rings trilogy consisted of three films from three books. With the Hobbit, we were now looking at 3 films from one book. Peter Jackson explained he intended to fill out the Hobbit’s tale, which takes place prior to the Rings trilogy, with additional elements form further Tolkien writings–appendices and other background pieces. The Hobbit as a novel was a less dense piece then the Rings books, skewing towards a younger audience. Not wanting to radically depart from the tone of his first trilogy, Jackson looked to beef up the tale and also add deeper connective tissue between the two trilogies.

In the first film, An

Unexpected Journey, I felt there was a good balance found between the tone of the novel and the tone of the Rings film trilogy. The film definitely felt lighter than the Rings films, as it should since  the darkness  of those films is in its infancy here. We were treated to a rousing adventure, with just enough gravitas to note the two trilogies’ connections.

The Desolation of Smaug is still a boisterous, rollicking adventure tale, but the darkness is starting to become more pronounced. The spiders that were hinted at in the fist film are here in force, having taken over the Mirkwood. The encounter with them is harrowing, but yet begins with a stirring moment of peaceful beauty as Bilbo peeks above the forest canopy. When we arrive at Laketown, we can see the economic devastation that the abandoned forges of Ereborn have caused. And most importantly, Gandalf’s side quest to check the tomb of one of the nine shows him that wraith have returned, and his investigation at Dal Guldur reveals the true, familiar nature of the darkness that has awakened.

There is a lot here that does not originate in the actual novel, including a very prominent role for the Wood elves, in particular our old friend Legolas and the film’s completely original character, Tauriel, a formidable female Elf. Many will scoff at the liberties taken here, but I found the entire scene where the company is escaping from the Elves by way of barrels in the river, while hunted by a pack of orcs, and eventually aided by Legolas and Tauriel, to be utterly thrilling. 

Of course the film ends up in Smaug’s lair deep in the lost Dwarven mountain home. The initial entry to Erebor is a stirring moment as the dwarves at long last return to their ancestral home. As one might expect, the return does not go as smooth as planned. Smaug is a formidable creature, magnificent to behold and masterfully voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. Bilbo’s awakening of and one on one with Smaug is taught and suspenseful, and then develops into an explosive action extravaganza with the Dwarven company. I will not give too much away, except to say the spectacle is grand, exciting, and then ends abruptly, leaving us to wait another year for the conclusion.

As much I was a fan of An Unexpected Journey, I felt that The Desolation of Smaug far surpassed it. The stakes felt higher, the emotions felt deeper, and the action was even grander. If the first film marked Jackson’s tentative steps into a long awaited return to Middle Earth, Desolation of Smaug is much more sure-footed and powerful. While Bilbo surrenders a lot of screen time to the rest of the cast, his development and growing strength is clearly evident. The film feels more of a piece with the first trilogy (Look out for a familiar cameo and some familiar names), and is a thrilling ride from beginning to end. The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug is like second breakfast for a hobbit…more of what you love.

As a side note, regular readers of Living 24fps may recall an earlier entry regarding the 48 frame per second version of Unexpected Journey. I have heard there were advancements in the format for the second film, but my initial viewing of the film was in 24 fps 3D. I will say that the 3D was stellar. I do intend to see the film at 48 fps, and will certainly add my thoughts at that point.

Maniac 2013

William Lustig’s original 1980 slasher classic Maniac is notorious for a few reasons.  Firstly, it is the rare slasher that stays with the story of the killer as opposed to following the victims. It causes a degree of discomfort when your protagonist is your antagonist. Secondly, there is the unabashedly gory effects work of artist Tom Savini in his prime.  Over the top and grisly, the original Maniac is a gore fiend’s delight. However, what really makes Lustig’s film noteworthy is the sleazy, sickening feeling it leaves you with. Draped in the grime of 1980 New York City, doused in sleeze, and dripping with sweat, Maniac leaves you feeling like you need a shower just to remove the dirt from your psyche.

One would not think of the film as ripe pickings for the remake-a-go-go trend we find ourselves in, but yet here we are with an updated version of Maniac, starring no less that Frodo Baggins himself, Elijah Wood. Even more surprising is that the film works. Do not get me wrong–there is 100% no need for a remake of Maniac. The original is a perfect example of a time and place–particularly early 80′s grindhouse cinema in NYC. However, if we have to have a remake of Maniac, this is a damn good one.

At first hearing of this project, you might think this was going to be a watered down take on the original. It most definitely is not. Practically dripping in gore from its opening scene, Maniac is not a film for the faint of heart. The effects work, handled by the effects masterminds (and Savini protégés) at KNB effects is intense. Wood’s performance is suitably disturbing, although not as repulsive as Joe Spinelli’s  filth oozing tour-de-force in the original.

The film is shot beautifully, replacing the grime and filth with a slicker veneer, but not forgetting to add occasional bouts of moist steam and urban decay. There is a bit of a euro horror sensibility to the proceedings, and a truly mesmerizing synth score by Rob (yes it is credited as just Rob) is particularly effective at creating the mood. What I really liked about the film was the fact that it was very faithful to the intent of the original. It leaves you with a melancholy and sickly sort of lingering malaise. 

There are sufficient changes to the story to make the film an update rather than just a complete copy of the original, including some modern uses of technology. There are mother issues at the heart of both films, though the details change. The truth is I did not see any startling revelations here that cried out as a reason to remake Maniac. Director Franck Khalfoun has crafted an effective slasher and serial killer character study that leaves it’s imprint on you. His P2 was a decently effective stalker as well. Let’s hope his talent is applied to something with some more originality soon.

Metallica: Through the Never

Living24fps is a blog devoted to my passion for film, but I am also passionate about music. My tastes are wide ranging, with favorites including mega stars U2, hardcore punk bands like the Cro-Mags and the Bad Brains, and thrash metal heroes gone huge- Metallica. So, this past weekend I drove out to the nearest Imax theater to catch Through The Never, Metallica’s new concert film/narrative film hybrid, in glorious large screen 3D. It was a blast.

From a technical standpoint Through the Never is a monumental achievement. The concert footage is captured magnificently in flawless 3D, with an up close and personal feel that leaves you feeling like you just spent the night working up there on stage with Metallica. The particular staging used for the filmed shows is massive, and the multi camera shoot is used very effectively to capture the show. The sound in the Imax theater was amazing. Loud yes, but also crystal clear with each instrument present in the mix (Something that fans of Metallica may know is not true on all of their releases). The set-list used is a meat and potatoes tour through Metallica’s hits, covering almost every album they have, and while there is not much in the way of deep cut surprises, this makes prefect sense for a wide release film that needs to engage more than just the diehard. The concert portion of the project is the real win here, and is the reason the film works.  

How you feel about the “narrative” part of the project will depend on how you take to the age-old film plot concept known as the “MacGuffin”. The MacGuffin is something a film uses as a character’s goal to move the plot forward, without necessary revealing the narrative importance of the item itself. Examples include the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, or the Maltese Falcon in the film of the same name. Through the Never begins with our protagonist Trip (Dane DeHaan) , arriving at the venue for the Metallica show. He is a low-level roadie, and huge fan of the band, as can be seen as he enters the arena and bumps into the band members in turn, each with a surreal result. Kirk Hammett’s guitar appears to bleed, While Rob Trujillo crab walks while blasting bass sounds that distort his surroundings… So at this point we already question whether Trip is experiencing something other than reality (Not to mention that his name is Trip). As the show begins, Trip is watching from the stands, only to be grabbed for an important mission. It seems that one of the crew’s vans is broken down out of gas, and it contains something the band needs. Trip is sent out to find the van and reclaim the band’s item. This is the film’s MacGuffin. As Trip heads out on his journey he pops some sort of pill, one I assume is a sort of hallucinogen, and then drives out to the city as the band begins playing Fuel. The engine imagery the band is using in the concert footage is mirrored on the sides of buildings as Trip heads out. From here out the film jumps back and forth between the concert and Trip’s adventure, with the occasional image linking the two.

The narrative structure is flimsy, and I really feel Through the Never is more like a long-form music video married to a concert film. Trip’s adventures, encountering a phantom figure on horse back, angry mobs and other post-apocalyptic horrors make little sense but look great, especially with Metallica’s music as their soundtrack. I was surprised that these scenes do not connect as directly to Metallica’s songs as one would expect. However, the imagery is thematically dead on for Metallica, and works in a less literal sense. As you may have guessed from my mentioning of the MacGuffin, in the end we never discover exactly what Trip was sent to retrieve. My personal interpretation is that it is related to material the band is working on for their next album, ( Metallica has said that  with the film done this is their next focus), and it makes some  sense symbolically…but this is all just my conjecture and there is nothing really in the film to back that up.

I would have liked to see a stronger connection between the film’s two halves, but as it stands Through the Never is a unique and fun cinematic experience. I applaud Metallica for trying to do something outside the standard concert film. The concert footage is top notch, and Trip’s quest adds some fun, gothic end of the world imagery that certainly resonates with Metallica’s music. See it in Imax if possible, as Through the Never is really a Visual and Audio experience.

Europa Report

 

Just when I thought I was over the whole found footage film trend comes Europa Report to remind me that it can still be effective when done well. Europa Report is a smaller, quieter sci-fi movie dealing with a manned mission to the Europa moon of Jupiter to search for life. Pockets of water have been detected beneath the frozen surface, and where there is water there is usually life. Europa Report tells the story of a six person international team of astronauts sent on a long-range mission to gather data from Europa. The story is told through footage from various cameras aboard their vessel as well as through interview and news footage of team members on earth.

Two elements work to elevate Europa Report above the glut of found footage copy cats that came in the wake of the Blair Witch phenomenon. First, the film tries to take its premise and associated science seriously. This is not a flashy film, and some might even find it slow. With several nods to 2001, and the often static photography the premise requires, the film attempts to depict the mission realistically and keeps the suspense and interest thorough grounded character and plot developments as opposed to bombast.

Secondly, I found myself generally caring for the astronauts. There are heartbreaking moments in the film, as well as terrifying ones, and examples of courage in the face of the unknown. I found it all rather resonant due to the fact that I felt as though I could believe in these people and their mission. When things begin to go wrong, it hurts.

Europa Report also jumbles the chronology at times for dramatic effect, and the foreshadowing created provides just enough information to create dread while leaving enough holes to allow the tale to still unspool with surprises. We are often provided with mission time stamps and other critical information on the camera or news views, so at times you must pay careful attention to follow the chronology.

Europa Report does borrow from other films in the genre, including the aforementioned 2001 and Blair Witch, as well as the Abyss to name a few. However, the film approaches its story and characters with respect and conviction, and the end result is an engaging hard sci-fi film; something we rarely see these days. This mission is worth embarking on.