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Movie Reviews: “Under The Skin” and “Transcendence”

Apr 172014
 
 By , April 17, 2014

Scarlett Johansson, Under The Skin

“Under The Skin” and “Transcendence” — Two Film Reviews by Gary Chew

“Under The Skin”

“Under The Skin” lingers only briefly on the dermatological. But the dermis is important to this rather unique film by Jonathan Glazer. The English director and writer blew me away with his 2000 film that hangs in my memory so well: “Sexy Beast.”

Under The SkinWith that in mind, I knew I had to see “Under The Skin” and besides, Scarlett Johansson is in nearly every scene.

To precisely say what “Under The Skin” is about is not easy. Let me try though.

There’s a predatory female (Johansson) who seems to be, in a very non sci-fi way, an extraterrestrial. (No, this isn’t “K-PAX 2.”) Under the guise of promising sex with solitary men, she performs (I guess that’s the right word to use) surreal acts or actions that render the males as … something else. I’ll let you see what that “something else” is, then you give it your definition.

The film borders on the boring because of simple, creepy, repetitious forays Johansson’s character has with the doomed men she targets. Many insertions of short scenes that imply a slight advance in time don’t set up what’s about to happen in the next. The close of a scene doesn’t give much as to what changes or advances the narrative. Continuity is not its long suit. It could be said that Glazer has purposefully made his film vague. But he has made it visually stunning and pregnant with dread.

What’s gradually perceptible is a subtle change in Johansson’s character. Initially, she’s internally cold and unemotional — cunning. Early in the third act, her character becomes narcissistic. She begins closely observing her face in mirrors, and then, yes … her body, totally.

SScarlett Johansson, Under The Skinlowly following the more self-absorbed attitude, her circumstance — in some way — is altered. Now the woman is a victim, no longer the predator.

Yes, nothing happens quickly in “Under The Skin.” For me it runs about 15 to 20 minutes too long. But that doesn’t mean you won’t be giving it a good deal of attention. Glazer’s ominous tone, the muddled sounds of voices and noises and non-musical music cause one to want to know more about what the hell is going on. The visuals, whether during scenes filmed in the UK, striking places of Scotland … or several much different ones that could have come from the mind of Salvador Dali … are terrific. Describing them would make the movie less enjoyable — if that’s also the right word to use.

There’s a parallel between “Under The Skin” and the myriad vampire movies and TV shows. The feature film that readily comes to my mind for having a common tone is “Let The Right One In,” an excellent, chilling, realistic vampire picture from Sweden that was also an American re-make titled, “Let Me In.” What’s different is that Johansson’s character is not a vampire; but skin and ultimately what surges under the epidermis are common to either film. It just takes Glazer nearly 2 hours to get to that which surges under the skin of his movie.

I suggest some of what Jonathan Glazer has put to his latest picture is being looked at through the “eyes of Stanley Kubrick” or imagined through eyes of an ill-defined alien who’s trying to adjust to life on Earth. But what it is that brings this alien to our planet remains opaque, except for whatever surfaces in your mind when you see “Under The Skin.”

(See “Under The Skin” trailer below.)

“Transcendence”

Johnny Depp, TranscendenceMeanwhile, it’s all techie all the time in the new Johnny Depp movie “Transcendence.” Depp’s a terribly intelligent neuroscientist on faculty over at UC-Berkeley. He plays Dr. Will Caster, an iconic figure in today’s world of advancing technology. Rebecca Hall plays his wife, Evelyn. She’s über smart too. They’re altruistic and want what’s best for the future, especially in terms of technology — both appearing to understand its benefits … but, as we learn, maybe not so much its perils.

Dr. Caster is shot by a anti-techie radical, but not seriously wounded. Two days later Caster falls ill and is diagnosed having radiation poisoning that’s was planted on the bullet. He’s terminal. That gives him, Evelyn and his assistants time enough to find a way to upload his brain and memories to their laboratory construct called “pin” … P-I-N-N … which will allow Caster to continue his work even though his body has expired.

Transcendence(P-I-N-N resembles a more elaborate and up-to-date HAL 9-Thousand without your having another opportunity to hear, “In My Merry Oldsmobile.”)

Ladies, not to worry. Depp is still around for the movie … just in a different form. It’s almost as if his later visage in the film is something George Orwell once dreamed.

“Transcendence” rehashes the important message of absolute power corrupting absolutely. Still the film requires more suspension of disbelief than it ought to, although what’s up with it can’t be said too often. The film does have vibrations of “A Beautiful Mind.”

Hall has much of the focus and is really fine as the suffering widow. Two of her earlier films were “Vicki Cristina Barcelona” and the excellent Boston cop flick, “The Town.” Other significant actors aboard are Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara and Cillian Murphy.

Director Wally Pfister allows for good entertainment especially for cyber nuts out on a date, even if the film almost loses it for trying to be too clever heading to its close. By the way, “Transcendence” ends like a stage play you may have seen. But I’ll say no more.

“Under the Skin” trailer:

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Gary Chew was a classical music host, programmer and producer on Capital Public Radio’s KXPR 88.9FM, Sacramento for 18 years. He retired in January 2007. Read more about Gary's long and storied career here.
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