Three New Releases: Under the Skin, The Double and Twenty Feet from Stardom (all 2013)

I must concede at this point that though I still go to as many films, I cannot necessarily work up the enthusiasm to post full reviews of all of them. Some may be good and others may be disappointing, but for whatever reason there’s nothing that grabs me and makes me want to write them up at length. Therefore I present below some short reviews of some recent releases.

Under the Skin (2013) [UK/USA/Switzerland, 15]

I relish how strange watching this film must be to mainstream cineplex cinemagoers, because it’s the kind of strange and uncompromising object you usually only get at festivals. It’s had a decent release (at least over here in the UK) on the strength of its marquee name star and the interesting work of its director Jonathan Glazer — some notable music videos and two feature films, including Sexy Beast (which coasted in on the crest of the trend for geezerish British gangster films, but managed to stand out from that fairly bland crowd by virtue of its excellent performances). And yet it’s got such an odd sensibility. For a start, Scarlett Johansson is the only really recognisable presence in the film; the rest of the cast is made up of local extras and a few small, fleeting roles. Its style, too, is laconic — not just in the paucity of dialogue, but in its reluctance to reveal much of anything. It’s not a flashy film, and it can seem quite slow at times, but it at least seems very clear about what it’s doing. Stylistically, it starts strikingly with a series of close-up images that are hard to make out, but suggest something smooth and machine-like and, as it turns out, otherworldly. Once the first humans appear, images and faces loom out of the Stygian darkness, and there’s a bleak, dreich Scottish overcast to everything: this is not a film that makes Scotland look like a tourist destination, but the film finds a certain groundedness in the elemental forces of nature. Partly that’s a balance to its protagonist’s apparently alien origins, and the harvesting of human victims (for this is at heart a horror story) is presented as oddly theatrical, Johansson luring them by undressing into a black room, where they sink into an oily murk. The drama comes as she starts to have reservations about her mission, though nothing is so overtly stated in the laconic script. As I said at the outset, it’s quite unlike very much else out there, and if for that reason alone, is worth watching, although it exerts an oneiric, uncanny hold over the viewer at times.

Under the Skin film posterCREDITS
Director Jonathan Glazer; Writers Walter Campbell and Glazer (based on the novel by Michael Faber); Cinematographer Daniel Landin; Starring Scarlett Johansson; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Wednesday 19 March 2014.

Jesse Eisenberg in The Double

The Double (2013) [UK, 12A]

Foremost, this new film from British director Richard Ayoade, who made his break in television comedy (some familiar faces show up in small roles here), is an exercise in style. It certainly captures a crumbling, retrofitted, dystopian world of Kafkaesque (or should that be, Gilliam-esque) bureaucracy-as-nightmare, without ever quite resolving what it is the bureaucracy is supporting — one could argue that it’s not supposed to be clear, but equally it would be nice to have a sense that the filmmakers understand something about bureaucracy before lampooning it. The story itself concerns Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), a frustrated nobody in a dead-end job who pines after the photocopy girl Hannah (Mia Wasikowska) in a weirdly creepy, somewhat stalkerish way. Then one day a new guy starts, James Simon, who is, you’ll have guessed, Simon’s double, but one who is far more successful at both work and love. It’s difficult though to care much about anyone, as Simon finds himself constantly thwarted by his own pathetic nebbishness, and while I found myself constantly frustrated at his passivity, a lot of his unluckiness felt rather more engineered by the filmmakers than organic to his character. Wasikowska, however, is brilliant at this somewhat difficult role, given that her character has very little to do than react to the almost-slapstick occurring around her. I got the feeling it wants to be a deadpan comedy, but I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm to laugh.

The Double film posterCREDITS
Director Richard Ayoade; Writers Ayoade and Avi Korine (based on the novella Двойник Dvoynik by Fyodor Dostoyevsky Фёдор Достоевский); Cinematographer Erik Wilson; Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Saturday 5 April 2014.

Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013) [USA, 12A]

There’s nothing startling or formally innovative about this straightforward documentary, presenting the lives and work of a handful of backing singers, interspersed with interviews with the frontmen and women they support. It’s perfectly likeable, though it could easily have been shorn of a couple of the stories and made into a slimmer, hour-long television documentary. The central characters in the documentary quickly resolve themselves to be Lisa Fischer and Darlene Love, with quite different takes on the work. Fischer’s own solo career fizzled out somewhat in the 1980s but she finds herself in her 50s perfectly happy to be out of the limelight while clearly doing well for herself financially (not least for being the chief backing singer on all the Rolling Stones tours); it doesn’t hurt that she has a forthright way with words and a charming ego-free personality that comes through strongly. Her diametric opposite is Darlene Love, who has none of the temperament of the other backing singers, being quite a bit more the diva, one who is clearly unhappy with being in the background, though her bad treatment at the hands of Phil Spector is an unfortunate and luckless story.

The film could hardly fail given the richness of the musical work it’s drawing on (clips of which are heavily featured), but the narrative is constructed in an unengaging way, and there’s a lot of repetition to the story of backing singers trying to reach solo fame and either partially suceeding, or fading away. My favourite moment in that regard is during an interview with the Waters family when they belatedly seem to remember they had their own solo albums, and one of the sisters pauses silently for a moment, looking downcast and thwarted. There are some rather unintentionally funny transitions, such as when Merry Clayton hymns the importance of rock music for providing a good stage for vocalists such as her, immediately before cutting to a rehearsal with Sting and his blandly inoffensive guitar strumming. There’s also a section that tries to deal with the political and racial ferment of the 1960s without really engaging much at all, and manages to suggest that one black backing singer’s involvement with “Sweet Home Alabama” somehow undercut its message in a meaningful way. Nevertheless, while not obviously award-winning material, it gives a welcome platform for these women (and a few men, briefly glimpsed), and does in the end manage to lift the spirits.

Twenty Feet from Stardom film posterCREDITS
Director Morgan Neville; Cinematographers Graham Willoughby and Nicola Marsh; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Tuesday 1 April 2014.


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