Wednesday, August 12, 2015

"Best" Movies of the Year Part 4 ("Under the Skin", "Lucy", and "The Loneliest Planet")

Continuing the Author’s severely belated countdown of the most acclaimed (and not acclaimed) films of 2014, the Author grapples with the inflated praise for some pretentious sci-fi and slowcore cinema.

Is Under the Skin the Most Overrated Movie of All Time?

Of the three arguments I’ve had the profound displeasure of repeating over and over again the last year with my newfound peers, the most persistent one has been over the proper function of film. A lot of my friends are voracious consumers of Marvel products—I mean films—and have labored to prevail upon me the notion that filmmaking’s primary purpose is just to entertain. This is not an unpopular notion, nor is it exclusive to the Comic Book Guy community, as even unhip, stodgy, supposedly more critical Oscar voters have regularly seen fit to reward movies that do nothing but entertain them (Argo and The Imitation Meme). If the movie inspires an emotional state of mind or engages them on an intellectual level, that’s a nice bonus, but most college kids and Basic moviegoers with the brains of college kids would be entirely content if every film played out like 21 Jump Street with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatyum—a nonstop stream of punchy one-liners, inverted stereotypes, hammy acting, and visual gags.

There’s nothing wrong with appreciating that series, which consistently delivers all the above things with exuberance and hilarity, but do movies of its ilk really perform the highest, noblest potential of the visual medium? Jonathan Glazer’s infamously conceited arthouse experiment Under the Skin argues, “No,” emphatically. While there are some truly magnificent Scottish landscapes and Glazer could have cast a less attractive lead, there’s not a moment in his film I found enjoyable to watch, and I was honestly staving off sleep through much of the middle. Under the Skin is anti-entertainment, begging to be slowly digested and respected as Art, whether or not you hate it while it’s playing. I stepped away from it thinking I’d just watched 2001 on steroids, and that wasn’t really a good thing in my mind. What the heck was I supposed to take away from this, and why did it take so long?

Then I read a little about the production process afterwards, and I realized that for all my initial indifference towards Under the Skin, it’s not a film that I or any other unaccomplished critic can beat up on in good conscience. A documentary about the making of Under the Skin would probably be a more interesting project than the movie itself, which seems to rebel against all conventional rules of filmmaking. From what I gather, major portions excluding the more stylized sci-fi scenes were shot without a script, a storyboard, or even real actors, and the editor was tasked with piecing together a legible, complete story from hundreds of hours of disassociated, mostly static footage; in this he largely succeeded.

It’s easy to complain about the protracted close-ups of Scarlett Johansson’s eyes, of Scarlett Johansson raising a fork to her lips, of Scarlett Johansson going for leisurely strolls in the forest, or of Scarlett Johansson perplexedly examining her human boobs in the mirror (OK, nobody complained about that part), but the truth is that very few people could have pulled together such a coherent narrative from so much random nonsense. Nor would it have occurred to many to outfit a van with concealed cameras and record an ‘undercover’ Scarlett using her natural allure to pick up real Scottish dudes oblivious that they were appearing in a movie. If I’d known beforehand what I know now about the creation of Under the Skin, I’d probably have taken a much greater interest in its proceedings. Maybe that makes the whole movie a gimmick, but I have to give Glazer credit for its execution, especially when I’ve never directed and likely never could direct anything quite as ambitious and inventive as the pretentious monster that he’s birthed.

In one of the more fascinating scenes, Scarlett picks up a disfigured man (played by a real person without any makeup, unlike someone else) and tries to strike up a conversation with him as though he’s just another average homo sapiens. Whether she does this because she’s learning how to show compassion or because she doesn’t perceive beauty the same way as we do remains unclear. All the motivations and visuals are pretty unclear, for that matter, beginning with the slowly materializing neon circle patterns that will make you initially question whether you got a broken DVD. The bottom line is that Under the Skin is not a film for those who demand clarity in everything they read or view. Like its central character, it manages to be intermittently hypnotic, eerie, and unemotional, and some of the images—a faceless motorcycle driver racing down an empty lakeside highway with the camera close behind, a diminutive swimmer fighting brutal currents while Scarlett stares passively from the beach—are beautifully stark and bleak.
A sample of the strangeness that is Under the Skin.

As a sci-fi horror film, Under the Skin never crossed over from disorienting to genuinely disconcerting, and as science-fiction it was more concerned with the general idea of an alien visiting our world than with depicting the culture or behavior of an alien species. I don’t think the movie has a message, per se, but if it has any underlying purpose, it’s to be as alienating a movie about human beings as one could possibly make. This is also why it’s impossible to enjoy Under the Skin while one is watching it, because it’s shot from a perspective that we as viewers will always find distancing or incomprehensible. The seemingly random and unfocused cinematography, curiously dwelling on the most ordinary of human public behavior, is probably meant more to bewilder than to bore us, enticing us to look at ourselves and our civilization through the eyes of an outsider. How’s that for some artsy-fartsy bulls***?

So is Under the Skin the most overrated movie of all time? Certainly not. Yes, Johansson wears one blank expression for almost the whole film, yes, it could do without some of the extreme, 40-second close-ups, and yes, the scratchy, experimental soundtrack gets to sound really grating and repetitive, but the creators succeeded for the most part at making their purposefully boring arthouse picture really inhumanly boring. I only insinuated it was the most overrated movie of all time to make you read the article. The real most overrated movie of all time is Spirited Away.

Scarlett Johnasson is a whore.

Lucy Cannon

Speaking of Scarlett Johansson, I also saw Luc Besson’s controversial return to directing wonky science-fiction, that being the succinctly titled Lucy. Unlike a lot of people who get paid to ‘critique’ movies, I don’t give a damn that the movie’s underlying assumption (humans only use 10% of their brain’s full capacity) is biologically inaccurate because it’s a movie about a superpowered, telekinetic woman who throws bad guys around with her mind, changes her facial features at whim, and literally turns back time with the swipe of a hand. Lucy is inherently unrealistic, absurdist storytelling, and if you can’t accept the premise within the movie’s tone, I struggle to comprehend why you’d even watch a sci-fi action movie in the first place, let alone offer your opinion on it.

As with the latest Mad Max movie or Whiplash, Lucy has a story that can be condensed into one or two short sentences, but the strength of the film lies in how the story is told. Aside from a couple hokey but not excessive or boring cutaways to Professor Morgan Exposition-man lecturing before an assembly of enlightened Darwinian college students, not one scene feels superfluous or unessential to the whole, which darts by in a refreshingly compact 89 minutes. Instead of treating us to a long succession of gratuitous explosion and shootouts, Besson discreetly regulates his special effects so that whenever something spectacular is happening we’re absorbing some new revelation about Lucy’s capabilities. In the hands of a less competent director-writer, we’d get a training montage sequence of Lucy failing to move objects around her house which would forecast a later resolution of her disarming a bunch of thugs all at once, then of throwing bad guys into each other, and finally of pushing over cars or even entire CG buildings, repeating all these tricks until we’re beyond tired of them. People complained about the trailer showing almost every action scene in the film, but that the marketing team was able to fit almost the whole thing into a two-minute advertisement is a testament to how briskly composed the film is.

Indeed, the greatest attribute one can credit Lucy for is its efficiency at packing so many distinct, original visuals into a framework while largely avoiding repetition, a filmmaking virtue that effects-driven movies seem to have lost in the age of the Marvel or the DC Cinematic Universe, both of which thrive on grandiloquent, infrastructure-wrecking final battles that invariably stall the forward momentum of the narrative. Lucy, in contrast, is a constantly escalating thrill ride that hits its peak only at the very end, when Scarlett watches a city dissolve into a prehistoric savannah, somehow warps to the beginning of 2001, makes contact with an early monkey-man, and finally transcends our material reality entirely. It’s a concept taken straight out of H.G. Wells’ Time Machine but makes for the perfect closing to a movie that revels in its weirdness.

As Lucy unlocks more and more of her severely constrained, Obama-towing neurons, her humanity simultaneously fades to the point that many viewers, unable to sympathize with an invincible character, will be disenchanted by the movie’s final act. Lucy’s not nearly as memorable or endearing a heroine as Leeloo in Besson’s former picture The Fifth Element, but I don’t think she needs to be for the purposes of her own movie, which is an incredibly simple, short form narrative about a tragic figure spiraling out of control and everything going to heck as a result. Nor do I think the movie lacks an emotional arc, as there’s a really potent scene midway through where Lucy makes a phone call to her mom and explains the overwhelming sensation of feeling literally everything. Lucy is kind of like A Fault In Our Stars in that it’s all about bracing oneself for impending doom, but instead of simply dying, Lucy is helpless to retain everything that connects her to the rest of mankind. One story is about gradually losing all the humans you know and love, the other is about suddenly losing everything that makes you recognizably human. One of these movies is also quite well-made and entertaining.

Ultimately that’s all Besson wants his movies to be: superbly entertaining, zany, breakneck pieces of escapism. And why would anybody fault him for that? It didn’t make it onto any critics’ best-of-year lists, but I loved enjoyed Lucy enough to go ahead and throw it on mine.

The Longest Planet

Speaking also of slow-paced, barely watchable indie dramas, I also sat through 2011’s The Loneliest Planet because it was free and the poster looked, well, pretty cool. The movie itself looks pretty cool at times with striking nature photography and frequent juxtaposition of a redhead’s brilliant hair against vividly green hillsides. I can’t say I wholly regret watching it, as it’s a very intriguing film conceptually and breaks a lot of cinematic rules we take for granted.

Whereas most movies are about things happening and characters who make them happen, The Loneliest Planet is all about what isn’t happening. Nothing happens for the first hour, something really unsettling happens in a span of about three seconds, then nothing happens again for the next forty minutes. Hence, if you leave The Loneliest Planet playing and take a bathroom break at the wrong place, you could very well fool yourself into thinking you just watched a movie about nothing, when in fact you watched a movie about one thing. Yes, somebody falls down in a cold stream, there’s some sexual banter in one of the camping tents, and the woman eventually sings a folk song with the guide next to the campfire, but nothing of consequence happens in the grander scheme of the plot. The characters just instinctually isolate themselves and (possibly) start to trust each other again towards the end.

Somehow it’s based on a book, even though the plot can be stated in fewer than 20 words. Dialogue is really sparse in the first half and even sparser in the second, when the director mainly uses silence and spatial distance to convey the depth of a schism that’s emerged between a formerly perfect, inseparable couple. None of the movie’s three characters talk openly about how they’re feeling, so the viewer has to infer what they’re thinking from the actors’ faces and their antisocial Body Language.

With that said, my gosh did this movie cry out for a Good Parts Version. The average shot duration in The Loneliest Planet feels like two minutes or more, which wouldn’t be bad if there was more pointed dialogue or set interaction a la Birdman, but here it’s too often unbearable, with no fewer than three ultra-long, stationary shots of the hikers crawling across the frame like insects. I understand that the director was trying to make the most naturalistic and believable film possible, and in a sense The Loneliest Planet is more successful at plopping one into a cold and foreign environment than any 3D, effects-laden picture.

Similarly to Moby Dick, suffering from boredom, frustration, and confusion is just one of the feelings the writer wanted to induce in the audience, and it worked. I was begging for the 20-minute fireplace scene to end as soon as Dato started divulging his whole life story; once it’s finally over, the film transitions to another stationary, wide shot of them packing up the camp, and then it cuts to the credits with no clear resolution whatsoever. The Loneliest Planet was very obviously supposed to be an experiment in minimalism, taking the Show, Don’t Tell philosophy to its most extreme conclusion, and it’s absolutely infuriating. The pivotal moment in the film is never rationalized even after the fiancĂ©e asks the escort to explain why it happened, so it’s really just a random plot device to justify the movie’s existence that could have been replaced by any natural disaster.

Would I recommend you watch it? That depends on whether you can. You could certainly be more liberal with the remote than your own Author, who patiently took in and admired every square foot of the colorful Georgian scenery waiting for something to happen that never did. The acting isn’t as noticeable as, say, Benedict Cumberbatch’s emotionally overflowing performance in The Imitation Game, but that may make it even better, and the method of storytelling is nothing if not a daring risk. Oh, and it was directed by a woman, Julia Loktev, so take that for what you will.

Actually, I hereby retract every criticism I made about this film.


Addendum: Jeffrey Overstreet, who doesn’t review nearly enough movies, has an intriguing and well-supported theological slant on The Loneliest Planet at his Looking Closer website that I’d encourage you to read whether or not you watch the film. The Loneliest Planet is such that any person’s evaluation of its technique is much more interesting than the technique itself, but Overstreet is especially good at elucidating meaning from an artwork that oftentimes seems meaningless.

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