Saturday, December 6, 2014

Both "Under the Skin" and "Snowpiercer" Prove Memorably Off-Beat, But Earn Vastly Different Grades

Under the Skin has been hailed as a masterpiece by some. Not me.
As I stated in my review of Sex Tape, the more movies I see, the tougher it is to sit through mediocre ones with nothing interesting going on. There’s a lot of cookie cutter stuff out there, films aimed right down the middle that are shot, acted and scripted just well enough to be passable entertainment.

Yet I still watch plenty of movies, and I try my best to review them when I can, because everyone once and a while, a movie hits a nerve or does something really cool or surprising, or, even better, something truly worth remembering or discussing.

That doesn’t always mean the movie is good or that I even enjoyed it. A few months ago I caught a really bizarre flick called Under the Skin. It features Scarlett Johansson as an alien who preys on young single men in Scotland so that she can take their insides and send them up to the home planet leaving only their skin behind.

The logline sounds cool, and the film is popping up on a slew of end-of-year top 10 lists, but I found the film pretty boring and opaque. It’s just a bit too ponderous for me, but at the same time, I respect the audacity of writer/director Jonathan Glazer’s filmmaking. Under the Skin features some striking imagery and haunting sequences, and it manages to remain intriguing despite the drawbacks of being such an arty endeavor.

Much of the credit for that belongs to Johansson who delivers a nicely calibrated piece of acting that serves as an interesting counterpoint to her stellar vocal performance in last year’s Her (that one was all voice, this one is almost entirely physical). A few years back, when her sexpot ScarJo vibe was at its apex, it seemed like she might be destined to follow in the footsteps of Jennifer Lopez, a gifted actress whose screen credibility was destroyed be her off-screen persona. That didn’t happen, and Johansson has emerged an actress equally at home in big budget action films as she is in these more personal independents.
Snowpiercer has a game cast of great actors.
Of course, I prefer when a movie does something unique, and I actually enjoy it as well. Snowpiercer, the English-language debut of writer/director Bong Joon-ho, is a prime example.

Set in the aftermath of an experiment that brought on an ice age that killed almost all life on Earth, the film takes place entirely on the Snowpiercer, a massive train that continuously loops around the globe and that is inhabited by an elite class in the front and a poor class in the back.

Conceptually, the film is relatively familiar end-of-days tale with the interesting twist of setting all the action aboard a locomotive. It also joins the growing number of futuristic science fiction films that make overt social commentary on the haves and have-nots (see also Elysium and In Time).

But what distinguishes the film isn’t so much the story it tells, but the way it tells it. The film moves along a predictable path with the insurgents moving from the back of the train to the front, but the moments and beats it hits along the way are just so specifically and wonderfully weird. In his review of the movie, pal Nate Adams wrote of the film’s “odd, shaggy loose strands,” calling particular attention to a scene in which the rebels come face to face with a mob of armed opponents who, in lieu of immediately attacking, make a spectacle of ritually gutting a fish.

It’s a great moment, but there are many others as well – like the way both sides in the aforementioned battle (once the fish gutting is out of the way) stop the violence to recognize the milestone of the train completing another orbit around the world, or the oddity of the bald guy pushing a cart full of eggs or the crazy frequency Tilda Swinton is operating on in this thing.

There is just so much interesting stuff going on throughout Snowpiercer that it’s hard not to be entertained. The plot has a clockwork precision to it that impressively becomes clear during the final 20 minutes. But what really seals the deal and elevates the film from “hey, that’s cool” to “man, this is downright transcendent” is the way Jong-ho intermixes the craziness with shockingly good character beats, most specifically the last act monologue by Chris Evans who plays the defacto leader of the train’s poor inhabitants. It’s a moment you won’t easily forget, and it’s definitely a peak moment for Evans, an actor who just seems to be getting better and better.

Due to producer dissatisfaction over the final cut of the film, Snowpiercer barely got much of a theatrical release. That’s unfortunate, but Netflix and Redbox have it, so you should definitely check it out. It’s totally worth seeing, but more than that, it’s pretty damn good too.

Under the Skin C, Snowpiercer A