Saturday, January 24, 2015

Best of 2014, Under the Skin

Under the Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer)

Probably the most original film viewed last year was Under the Skin, loosely based on a novel about an extraterrestrial being prowling the Scottish highlands for men to harvest. In Jonathan Glazer's film, this being is Scarlett Johansson, but unlike in the novel, the film reveals nothing about her. Instead of giving a traditional narrative, Under the Skin invites us to simply observe the alien Scarlett Johansson as she drives, using her beauty to entice the men she stops to speak with into her car. She then takes them to a place where they slowly undress as she leads them into a dark pool. The film barely hints at her purpose. All we are given is that she drives, delivering men to the mysterious blackness to be consumed in that pool, their flesh floating away.

The resulting cinematic experience of a film with so little traditional exposition, frees one to watch her as the interacts with the men she hunts. Most of these men are not actors, but Scotsmen who they encountered as Johansson drove and she remains cold and unsympathetic for the first half of the film, until she encounters a man who is disfigured, lonely, and ostracized and their conversation turns more intimate. They even touch briefly.

Under the Skin asks what makes us human? And it suggests that something essential to our humanity is within our skin. It is found in our need to be touched, to be caressed, to be held. And the final shots of the film, when the alien has shed her Scarlett Johansson flesh and looks into the now empty face, recognizing the humanity of this skin.

That is the narrative that I saw, but the beauty and strength of Under the Skin is that it is very ambiguous. This is a film made to be reflected up and that likely behave as a mirror, showing us our own beliefs within our interpretations. And it is this ambiguity along with that haunting score that made Under the Skin on of the most exciting films of 2014.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Best of 2014, Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer (2013) dir. Bong Joon-ho

Unlike Locke, which exclusively uses dialog and Tom Hardy's face to construct the narrative, Snowpiercer draws heavily on visual storytelling. In Bong Joon-ho's multilingual, multinational allegorical illustration of capitalism, Snowpiercer is both visually and metaphorically about a quest to overthrow the class structure, by taking the engine of the train. Curtis' (Chris Evans) revolution begins at the rear of the train that houses all of surviving humanity after the earth became inhabitable due to a human induced ice age. The rear is where the underclasses live in the dark, surviving on meals of gelatinous protein blocks. In the quest to take the engine, Curtis leads his band of revolutionaries forward through the train and thus, car by car, visually illustrating upward mobility through the capitalist class structure. Probably, the most striking and funniest section is when they pass through the classroom where a very pregnant teacher (Alison Pill) is indoctrinating the children of the train's upper and middle cars with the story of Wilfred and his eternal train that protects them.

While the focus is on the insane lesson, Namgoon Minsoo (Song Kang-ho) direct's his daughter's attention outside the train in an effort to teach Yona (Ko Asung) about the frozen world outside, a world she knows nothing about having spent her entire 17 years on Wilfred's train. This duo was released from their incarceration in order to open the doors between the cars. They provide an alternative perspective on the revolution underway, that there are other options than to simply move forward.

Snowpiercer is such a powerful cinematic experience because it dares to unfold its narrative using visual cues instead of depending only upon spoken exposition. However, peppered throughout are amazing cinematic moments, like turning the focus away from a gun battle to observe a snowflake drift into the train through a bullet hole. These visual breaks in the narrative sometimes add a touch of humor or whimsy, but also demonstrate the power of Bong Joon-ho's unique cinematic vision.

Best of 2014, Locke

The cinema has been in a state of decline for quite a while now. Theaters have been quietly disappearing from the landscape, sometimes to reopen under different ownership, but sometimes, they are simply gone as in the case of the Neptune Cinema, now a concert venue. Fortunately, after the Egyptian's sudden closure in the summer of 2013, it reopened this fall under new ownership. But sadly, Seattle lost two more movie houses, the Harvard Exit and the Varsity. So 2014 was a tumultuous year for the cinema as the number of screens quietly decline and more and more movie-goers are happy to watch movies at home on the small screen.

As has been the case for several years now, most of the cinema I saw in 2014 was in nearly private screenings. As someone who values the experience of watching film in a cinema, with an audience, I know the sparsely populated screenings have more than a little to do with my not making it out to see many of the big movies of the year.

I still maintain hope that the movie house has a future, due to my experiences as a projectionist at a small, independent, volunteer run cinema. In 2014, the audiences were larger and more enthusiastic than in previous years. I work on Monday nights, historically the slowest night of the week, and saw audiences climb from the low single digits to 20-30 people most nights. I don't understand the trend, but it is one that suggests that young people today will still leave home to watch movies.

So in the first weeks of 2015, I plan to write briefly about a few of my favorites of 2014.

Locke (2013) dir. Steven Knight

In this intensely suspenseful drama, Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) spends nearly the entire duration of the film seated behind the wheel as he drives and battles some internal demons. This is a film that isn't in a hurry to reveal Ivan Locke's reasons for not being at home with his family watching the big game, but is instead driving to another destination. He has also left the site of an extremely important concrete pour and much of the film is spent on the phone with Donal (Andrew Scott) making sure that the concrete is poured correctly in his absence.

What is most amazing about Locke is that it is so skillfully crafted that despite being focused on Tom Hardy's face as he answers a never ending series of phone calls, the film never becomes tedious or claustrophobic. No, I spent the duration on the edge of my seat, completely invested in the outcome of this construction site pour. I have never cared so much about concrete and rebar in my life. But as any glitches are being dealt with at the construction site, the real story is being revealed. That night, a haunting sense of obligation and duty takes him away from his family and his work and it is in the need to make different choices than his own father that has resulted in this drive which will likely end both his career and his marriage. And it is incredible that this emotional journey is conveyed simply by the voices in this car and the emotions playing out on Locke's face.