IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972)

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For a monster born more than 50 years ago, Godzilla may be more relevant now than ever before.

The movies just keep on coming.  The latest Godzilla movie arrived last year with SHIN GODZILLA (2016) to a limited release here in the U.S., and it received some pretty good reviews.  And there is another film in the works, GODZILLA:  KING OF MONSTERS, due out in 2019, from the same folks who made the Bryan Cranston GODZILLA (2014).  All told, there have been 31 Godzilla movies to date, and it doesn’t look like they’re stopping any time soon.

But today’s movie comes from that time when Godzilla was a silly monster superhero, constantly saving the world from the evil and bad monsters.  Silly stuff for sure, but also the type of Godzilla movie that a lot of us grew up with.

Today IN THE SPOOKLIGHT it’s one of my favorite Godzilla movies from the 1970s, GODZILLA VS. GIGAN (1972).

This one sat on the shelf for a few years before being released in the U.S. in 1978 with the title GODZILLA ON MONSTER ISLAND.  It was supposed to be a return to the traditional Godzilla format, after the offbeat message-driven GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER (1971),  a film I did not enjoy as a kid, but it’s one that has definitely grown on me over the years.

In GODZILLA VS. GIGAN, aliens from outer space are once again trying to take over the Earth, and they employ space monsters Gigan and King Ghidorah to help them.  To defend the Earth, humankind turns to their giant monster friends Godzilla and Anguirus for help.

And defend the Earth they do, in one of the series’ better and longer climactic monster bashes.  And there you have it.  That’s pretty much GODZILLA VS. GIGAN in a nutshell.  What did you expect?  Shakespeare?

I find GODZILLA VS. GIGAN particularly enjoyable for two reasons.  The biggest reason is the aforementioned climactic battle.  It’s one of the best in the series.  That being said, in terms of monsters, this one gets off to a slow start, and it seemingly takes forever for Godzilla and Anguirus to show up, but once they do, nearly the final third of the movie is one long and rather exciting giant monster bout.

The other fun thing about GODZILLA VS. GIGAN is its human characters.  While the space villains are your typical bad guy types, the heroes in this one seem to have stepped out of a Scooby Doo cartoon.  They’re young and they’re hip.  Groovy, man!  We have a young cartoonist who draws monsters, a young woman looking for her kidnapped brother, and her male friend, a classic hippie who can’t seem to stop eating corn on the cob.  I guess Scooby snacks weren’t available. These three provide lots of light-hearted fun during the people parts of this monster flick.

GODZILLA VS. GIGAN is also the film famous for being the movie where Godzilla actually talks!  Yep, words come out of Godzilla’s mouth as he talks to his buddy Anguirus. It’s a ridiculously silly scene, and Godzilla and Anguirus sound like Yogi Bear and Boo Boo.  It’s awful.

The good news is, we live in the age of DVDs and Blu-ray, and these discs often include the original Japanese versions as well.  So, you can watch the original Japanese version in which Godzilla and Anguirus do not talk.  Oh, they communicate, but through sounds rather than words, and it’s very obvious that they are communicating.  Unfortunately, the American distributors didn’t think their Godzilla audiences were intelligent enough to figure this out, and so they added the ridiculous English language dubbing.

GODZILLA VS. GIGAN was directed by Jun Fukuda, no stranger to the Godzilla franchise, as he directed five movies in the series. In addition to GODZILLA VS. GIGAN, GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER (1966), SON OF GODZILLA (1967), GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973), and GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (1974) were all helmed by Fukuda.

Shin’ichi Sekizawa wrote the screenplay, based on a story by Takeshi Kimura. Kimura wrote the screenplays to some of my favorite Toho movies, including RODAN (1956), THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966), and KING KONG ESCAPES (1967).

Are there better Godzilla movies?  Certainly!  But in terms of fun Godzilla movies, GODZILLA VS. GIGAN ranks near the top.

Of course, the big question for Godzilla fans is, how does Godzilla fare in this one?  Well, truth be told, it’s not one of the big guy’s better performances.  The costume looks rather silly here, and it does take Godzilla forever to finally show up and take on Gigan and King Ghidorah.  There really isn’t a good balance here of Godzilla scenes.  It’s pretty much all or nothing, with the “all” coming in the film’s final  30 minutes or so.  But the climactic battle is worth the wait.

Plus, Godzilla’s goofy appearance kinda fits in with the rest of the movie, a 1970s romp.  You almost expect to see Cheech and Chong show up.  It would actually make a nice companion piece with Hammer’s DRACULA A.D. 1972 (1972).

Want a cure for the winter blues?  Watch GODZILLA VS. GIGAN and see Godzilla and Anguirus take on Gigan and King Ghidorah in an all-out monster bash.  It’s a sure-fire way to smash out the cold weather doldrums.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: IT FOLLOWS (2014)

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All the rage this year for horror fans has been the Netflix TV show STRANGER THINGS (2016), and with good reason:  it’s a phenomenal show.  Among the many things it gets right is its near-perfect homage to the horror films of the 1980s, especially the films of John Carpenter.

But for me, before STRANGER THINGS, a film that also captured the spirit of John Carpenter’s early works was the stylish horror flick IT FOLLOWS (2014).  While not a clear homage to the 1980s— in fact, it’s unclear when this film takes place, and this timelessness seems to have been done on purpose— the film definitely has that 1980s horror vibe.

In fact, there are several specific shots that bring to mind John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978).  The neighborhood where the main characters live looks similar to Laurie Strode’s neighborhood in HALLOWEEN, and there’a scene where main character Jay sits in a classroom listening to her teacher drone on before looking out the window and seeing a threat.  There’s a similar scene in HALLOWEEN.  In that movie, Laurie looks out the window and sees Michael Myers’ car.  In IT FOLLOWS, Jay looks out the window and sees the old woman walking towards her.

IT FOLLOWS is a stylish, sexy horror movie that ranks as one of the best horror films to come out in the past ten years.

The film opens with a teenage girl fleeing from some unseen terror.  The next morning she turns up brutally murdered.

The action switches to 19 year-old Jay Height (Maika Monroe) on a date with Hugh (Jake Weary), a guy she is really interested in.  Gotta do a better job picking your dates, Jay.  After the two have sex, Hugh drugs Jay, and when she awakes, she is tied to a wheelchair.  Hugh explains that he’s not going to hurt her, but that he restrained her so he could tell her the truth:  he is being followed by some unknown entity, and now by having sex with Jay, he has passed on the curse to her, and if she wants to get rid of the curse, she’ll have to have sex with someone else.

Can someone say padded cell?

That’s certainly what Jay is thinking, until a naked woman shows up and starts slowly walking towards her and Hugh.  This entity only has to touch you, and you die, so as long as you outrun it, you’re safe, but it never stops pursuing you.  Ever.

Hugh quickly whisks Jay away from the woman and brings her back home, but he tells her to remember all that he told her.  Jay thinks he’s nuts and a creep, until once again, this time an elderly woman- who no one else seems to see- shows up at her school and follows her, causing Jay to up and run from the building.

Jay confides in her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), and with the help of their friends, Paul (Keir Gilchrist), Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and Greg (Daniel Zovatto), they vow to get to the bottom of this mystery and protect Jay’s life in the process.

While this may sound like just another bad teenager horror movie, IT FOLLOWS is anything but bad and recycled.  It’s exceedingly fresh and effective.

Let’s start with the entity, the “monster” that is inflicting harm on the teenagers.  This entity is unlike what we’ve seen in horror movies of late – it’s not a demon or a ghost or an alien, but then again, maybe it is.  The film never quite defines just what “it” is, and this is part of what makes this movie work so well.  It doesn’t need to define its villain.

What this force does is effective enough on its own.  It simply walks—never runs— towards its intended victim, and when it touches them, it kills them.  So, if you’re the hunted, like Jay, you have to constantly outrun this thing because it never stops, which reminded me a little bit of the premise from the first TERMINATOR movie way back when.  The fear here is its relentlessness.  Sure, it moves like a turtle, but it never stops, which means, eventually people like Jay are going to grow weary, tired, fall asleep, what have you, and that thing will catch up to them and kill them.

It also looks different to everyone who sees it, and to those it’s not hunting, it’s invisible.   This might not sound like much in the scare department, but you’ll be surprised at how creepy the image of an old woman walking listlessly towards the camera can be.

Which brings me to another thing I loved about IT FOLLOWS:  its simplicity.  Things here work on such an unpretentious level, and the movie generates scares so effortlessly just by having people walking towards their victims, it’s refreshing and for those of us who love horror it’s a heck of a lot of fun.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell succeeds in making an extremely stylish and terrifying horror movie.  He also captures the feel of run down Detroit neighborhoods which adds to the mood of this one.

Mitchell’s work here clearly calls to mind horror movies from the 1970s and 1980s, especially the films of John Carpenter, and the look of this movie is helped a lot by its masterful music score by Rich Vreeland, listed in the credits by his nickname “Disasterpeace.”  The music has a major impact on this movie and is reminiscent of the electronic scores of John Carpenter.

The cast here is also excellent.  Maika Monroe is terribly sexy as Jay, and she succeeds in making her both strong and vulnerable at the same time.  Lili Sepe is just as good as Jay’s sister Kelly.

Keir Gilchrist nails his role as Paul, the slightly nerdy friend who has a thing for Jay and vows to protect her.  Likewise, Olivia Luccardi is excellent as Yara, as is Daniel Zovatto as their street smart friend Greg.

In addition to being a creepy horror movie, David Robert Mitchell’s script also works on a symbolic level.  The characters by having sex pass on the “curse” to the person they have sex with, like an STD or the AIDS virus, and like AIDS, while the entity can be controlled, it can never be eradicated.  It keeps following you forever.

There’s also a weird time element going on in the film which might be a distraction for some folks but wasn’t for me.  The film looks like it takes place in the 1970s/80s, and some of the action in this film backs this up:  the characters watch television on old TV sets which use antennas, no one uses cell phones, the teens play board games rather than video games, and the cars aren’t the newest models.  However, in several scenes, Yara is definitely reading from kindle device.

Writer/director David Robert Mitchell has said he did these things because he wanted this film to be timeless, and I don’t have a problem with this.  It’s been done before.  One of the most famous horror series of all time, the Universal FRANKENSTEIN series, for example, never defined its timeline, and those films have always worked.

IT FOLLOWS is one of the more satisfying horror films I’ve seen in a long while.  To generate horror isn’t easy.  Those of us who write horror know this firsthand.  It’s certainly easier doing it with shock scenes and blood and gore, and so when someone comes along like David Robert Mitchell in this case and makes a film that is as unsettling as this one is with so few visual effects and traditional scares, that’s kinda special.

Definitely check out IT FOLLOWS, but if you look out your window and  see someone slowly walking towards you, someone that nobody else seems to be noticing, take my advice:  run!

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MR. HOLMES (2015) – Sherlock Holmes Tale An Outstanding Period Piece And Solid Vehicle for Ian McKellen

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Blu-ray Review:  MR. HOLMES (2015)

By

Michael Arruda

 

We all grow old.  Even Sherlock Holmes.

That’s the premise of MR. HOLMES (2015), the story of an elderly Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) trying desperately to remember the details of his final case, a case which ended so horribly it convinced him to retire.  But remembering is no easy task since he’s dealing with early stages of dementia.

Holmes, now in his 90s,  lives in a plush quiet home in the country along with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker). The year is 1947, and Holmes has been retired for thirty years.

He finds himself haunted by his final case, because he knows the events of that case caused him to retire outright.  The trouble is, he cannot remember any of it.  He tries all sorts of methods to stimulate his memory, but what he finds works best and inspires him most is spending time with young Roger, who loves Holmes and constantly encourages him to come out of retirement and solve another case.  So Holmes spends considerable time with the boy, often teaching him about beekeeping, in the hope that his memory will return.

And it does, but in bits and pieces and over the course of the movie, where we learn the fascinating details of the case which led Sherlock Holmes to an early retirement.  Since this is a mystery, the less said about the plot the better.

There are several reasons to see MR. HOLMES.  One is the cinematography.  The English countryside has never looked more inviting.

Better than the cinematography is the acting, led of course by Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes.  McKellen does more with just his facial expressions in this movie than most actors accomplish with their entire bodies.  Director Bill Condon takes full advantage of close-ups of McKellen’s face, showing us the pain, annoyance, wisdom, frustration, and flat out devastation felt by the aged Holmes.

As Holmes, Ian McKellen shows us a man struggling with memory loss, who at times still possesses the mental faculties which made him the world’s greatest detective.  He can be grumpy and aloof, but also compassionate and caring.  And in flashbacks from thirty years earlier, we witness a Holmes in his 60s working on that fateful case which would force his retirement.  McKellen handles these different stages of Holmes’ life with relative ease.

Young Milo Parker as the boy Roger is the perfect complement for McKellen’s Holmes here, and the two share the best scenes in this movie.  Laura Linney is also very good as Roger’s mother and Holmes’ housekeeper Mrs. Munro.  Tired of Holmes’ crabbiness and lack of cooperation, she actively wants to seek employment elsewhere, but that’s the last thing Roger wants since he idolizes Holmes.  It’s also not what Holmes wants since his time with Roger seems to be the only thing that sparks his memory.

The rest of players also do a very good job.  MR. HOLMES features splendid acting throughout.

The screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on a novel by Mitch Cullen, and using characters written by Arthur Conan Doyle, works on multiple levels.  It’s a poignat tale about the relationship between a very old person, Holmes, and a very young person, Roger, and on this level alone the film succeeds.  But it’s also a very compelling mystery, as Holmes’ final case involves the investigation into a supposed unfaithful wife, as well as a fateful trip to China.

Director Bill Condon does a nice job here.  For a film about an elderly Sherlock Holmes, the pacing is quick, and the film flies by, even though it is an hour and 44 minutes long.  Condon also directed McKellen in GODS AND MONSTERS (1998), an excellent movie about FRANKENSTEIN director James Whale, in which McKellen starred as the famous filmmaker.  But Condon also directed the last two TWILIGHT movies.  MR. HOLMES, no surprise, is much closer in quality to GODS AND MONSTERS than to the dreadful TWILIGHT films.

The other thing I liked about MR. HOLMES is that in spite of its central character dealing with dementia, the film resists the temptation to overplay the sympathy card.  Holmes harldly speaks of his memory troubles.  He just deals with them.

MR. HOLMES is an outstanding period piece, featuring a superb performance by Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes, and solid acting by the rest of the cast.  It’s well-directed, exhibits beautiful cinematography, and contains a first-rate mystery to boot.

It’s elementary, my dear Watson.  This one is definitely worth a look.

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Blu-ray Review: Danny Collins (2015)

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In DANNY COLLINS (2015) Al Pacino plays an aging rock star.

I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to wrap my head around Pacino playing a Neil Diamond-type— his onscreen persona just seems too intense— and after seeing this movie, I’m still not sure, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying him or the movie.

Al Pacino is Danny Collins, a Neil Diamond-type rock star who is in his waning years and has let his life pretty much go down the toilet.  He does drugs, he’s married to a trophy wife who he doesn’t love, and he barely has the stamina to get through a performance anymore.

His life changes when his agent Frank Grubman (Christopher Plummer) presents him with a gift:  a letter written to him from John Lennon nearly 40 year ago.  Lennon’s letter was written to him in response to a magazine interview Collins had given early in his career where he had expressed doubts about his music.  Lennon’s letter offered him personal encouragement.  Lennon had sent the letter to the magazine, and the editor had kept it rather than give it to Collins.  After the editor’s death it had gone to a private dealer, where it remained until Grubman tracked it down.

The letter inspires Collins to make some life-altering changes, and number one amongst them is to finally reconnect with his estranged adult son Tom (Bobby Cannavale) and his family.  And this is what DANNY COLLINS is ultimately about, and is why it becomes such an enjoyable and rewarding movie.

Al Pacino, in spite of my misgivings, is terrific as Danny Collins.  I still can’t picture him as a rock star, but that doesn’t really matter because in this movie he’s playing a rock star who just doesn’t have it anymore, and in that regard, he pulls it off just fine.  But more importantly,  this story is about him reconnecting with his son, which is no easy task since his son wants absolutely nothing to do with him, and it’s here where Pacino shines.

My favorite part of Pacino’s performance here is that it’s much more understated than his usual work.  He plays Danny Collins as a man who is weary and tired, and yet when he needs to be fiery, he rears back and pulls energy from deep within, and in scenes where he has to break through his son’s defenses, he does it with ease.  He exudes sincerity and caring, and from a character who’s reputation is anything but, he makes it all very believable.

Pacino receives fine support from the rest of the cast, led by Bobby Cannavale as his son Tom.  Cannavale is perfect as the working-class husband and father who wants nothing to do with his rock star father who basically disowned him for his entire life, and when Collins shows up at his door to make amends, it’s not pretty.  However, Collins is persistent and makes it clear he really does want to become part of his son’s life, and as this persistance gradually chisels through Tom’s hardened construction worker exterior, Cannavale effortlessly handles these nuanced changes.

I’ve enjoyed Cannavale in films like LOVELACE (2013), CHEF (2014), and ANT-MAN (2015) to name just a few, but I don’t think I’ve seen him better than here in DANNY COLLINS.

Annette Bening also adds fine support as Collins’ new love interest Mary Sinclair, who runs the hotel where Collins is staying.  They hit it off instantly and share a flirtatious chemistry throughout.  Jennifer Garner is also very enjoyable as Tom’s wife Samantha.  Garner, from the TV show ALIAS (2001-2006) is very good here as the lovable mother and wife, who takes to Collins immediately and helps ease the tensions between father and son.  And young Giselle Eisenberg  makes for a very cute and entertaining little daughter Hope.

And Christopher Plummer enjoys a scene-stealing performance as Collins’ agent Frank Grubman.  It’s the type of wise-cracking role Alan Arkin has played recently.

DANNY COLLINS was written and directed by Dan Fogelman, who wrote CRAZY, STUPID LOVE (2011), one of my favorite comedies of recent years, which starred Steve Carrell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, and Emma Stone.   Fogelman keeps the tone of DANNY COLLINS light, and as a result the film in spite of some of serious moments remains playful and fun throughout.

You also can’t beat the music score, as it’s peppered with John Lennon songs.  How cool is that?  Original song “Hey Baby Doll” which is supposed to be Danny Collins’ signature tune and the one that his aging audience always wants him to perform, sounds just like a Neil Diamond ditty and is perfect for this story.

I’m still not sure I buy Pacino as an aging rock star.  But I certainly buy him as a once absent father desperately trying to reconnect with his adult son.  And in the story that DANNY COLLINS has to tell, that’s all that really matters.

—Michael

 

THE DROP (2014) Is Crime Drama At Its Best

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Blu-ray Review:  THE DROP (2014)

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Michael Arrudathe drop poster

Tom Hardy is one of my favorite actors working right now.

Every time I see him in a movie, he’s playing a completely different kind of role.  Whether he’s the villainous Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) or the heroic Max in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015) he’s making an impression.  In THE DROP (2014) which I recently watched on Blu-ray, he plays a soft-spoken ex-con bartender named Bob who works at a bar where there is more mob activity than alcohol served.  Bob is a fascinating character who plays his cards close to his vest.  You know there’s something more to this guy, but you just can’t figure out what it is.

In THE DROP Hardy is flanked by two equally talented actors, Noomi Rapace and the late James Gandolfini.

I saw THE DROP on Blu-ray the same week that I saw BLACK MASS (2015) at the theater, the lurid Whitey Bulger bio pic starring Johnny Depp as the infamous Boston mobster.  I found THE DROP to be the more compelling of the two, equaling the intensity of BLACK MASS but having a better story and more interesting and captivating characters.

In THE DROP, ex-con Bob (Tom Hardy) tends bar at Cousin Marv’s, a bar owned by Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) himself.   It’s a drop bar, meaning that the mob deposits money there on a regular basis.  One night, the bar is robbed, an act that the Chechen mafia who rule that neighborhood does not take kindly to, and they immediately suspect Bob and Marv of being in on the robbery. While Marv reacts nervously, Bob seems to take it all in stride and goes about his business in a quiet, unobtrusive way.

When he discovers a badly beaten pit bull puppy left for dead in a garbage can, he’s encouraged to take the dog home by his neighbor Nadia (Noomi Rapace).  He doesn’t want to do this because he says he doesn’t know how to care for a dog, but Nadia pretty much tells him the dog will die without his help, and she in turn helps him take care of it, and soon they become good friends, until her former boyfriend Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts) shows up, claiming the dog is his and that he wants it back.  Bob tells him no, even though Eric has the reputation of being a loose cannon and evidently killed a man.  None of this seems to faze Bob all that much.

When Marv’s bar is chosen as the main drop bar on the night of the Super Bowl, meaning that a huge amount of mob money will be deposited there, the story comes to a head as Bob finds himself in the middle of yet another plan to rob the bar, the vengeful Chechen mafia, and the psychotic boyfriend who seems ready to kill Bob at the drop of a hat.

THE DROP works as well as it does because of the superb acting performances in the movie.  Tom Hardy knocks the ball out of the park with his performance as Bob, a man who finds himself in the tensest predicament yet doesn’t seem to break a sweat.  He’s a fascinating character who seems to be harboring some sort of secret, a key which defines his personality.

Noomi Rapace as Bob’s love interest Nadia has played this kind of role before and she can pretty much sleepwalk through it, but that doesn’t mean she’s not excellent.  She is.  Her part here reminded me a lot of her role in another thriller DEAD MAN DOWN (2013) but that didn’t stop me from liking her performance.

The late James Ganolfini is also exceptional here as Cousin Marv.  When the movie opens, he seems to be the wise and weathered bar owner, whereas Bob seems more naïve, but as the story goes on, we learn that this is not quite the case.  Marv has a troubled life, and he makes poor decisions as a result.

The screenplay by Denis Lehane is flat out excellent.  It’s a complicated story that is never too confusing.  It creates captivating characters who you want to learn more about. It’s based on his short story “Animal Rescue.”  Lehane also wrote the novels Mystic River (2003), Gone Baby Gone (2007) and Shutter Island(2010). And even though this movie was based on his short story, it plays like a novel.  Its story is rich and deeply textured.

Director Michael R. Roskam has made a very suspenseful thriller that is as dark as it is satisfying.

If you like your crime stories populated with multi-dimensional characters who face crucial decisions throughout, in the face of threatening mob violence all around them, you’ll love THE DROP, a compelling movie that isn’t afraid to take its time with its characterizations.  It allows its audience time to get to know its characters without sacrificing intensity or excitement.

It’s also a showcase for Tom Hardy who continues to impress in movie after movie.

I loved THE DROP.

It’s crime drama at its best.

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UNDER THE SKIN (2013) Will Get Under Yours

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Blu-ray Review:  UNDER THE SKIN (2013)undertheskin poster

by

Michael Arruda

If you enjoy weird artistically-driven movies filled to the brim with neat visuals and creative camerawork, you’ll love UNDER THE SKIN (2013) a thought-provoking science fiction film by writer-director Jonathan Glazer. On the other hand, if you prefer mainstream movies with straightforward storylines and traditional story-telling techniques, you might find yourself reaching for the remote.

UNDER THE SKIN is not the kind of movie you’ll find playing at your mainstream multiplex. This is a good thing, and if you’re patient and willing to go the distance, you’ll be rewarded with a satisfying movie experience that is more intellectually challenging than most.

UNDER THE SKIN stars Scarlett Johansson as a mysterious woman stalking the streets of Scotland in search of men and leading them to an unfortunate fate. She drives around Scotland in a van picking up these young men, and she brings them back to a rather unusual house where—well, to avoid giving anything away, let’s just say that these men don’t return.

Who is this strange woman?  Is she an alien?  A robot?  A serial killer? The film never really says, although since this movie is based on a novel about an alien, it’s a safe bet that she’s not from this planet.

As she continues abducting young men, she becomes cognizant of what she is doing, and she experiences an emotional epiphany which alters her actions and ultimately changes her fate.

UNDER THE SKIN is beautifully photographed by director Jonathan Glazer.  He uses the contrast between light and dark brilliantly.  Rather than rely on traditional dialogue to move the narrative along, Glazer prefers the use of images and camera techniques to tell his story. It all works.  While things might not always be clear at first, everything in this movie eventually makes sense.

UNDER THE SKIN also has a phenomenal music score by Mica Levi.  It’s weird and very horror movie-like, yet it complements the film wonderfully.

The screenplay by director Glazer and Walter Campbell based on a novel by Michel Faber succeeds in telling a story without relying solely on words.  In fact, there is very little dialogue in this movie.

One of the best sequences in the film is when the woman picks up a man suffering from neurofibromatosis, and it’s in this scene where we see her really begin to evolve as a thinking being.

When she seduces the men, she places them in a sort of hypnotic state, which is so effective she nearly hypnotizes the viewer as well.  Watching her seduce these men is truly a hypnotic experience, and the way it occurs on screen, it’s pretty cool.

Scarlett Johansson is to be applauded for playing a role that is far from traditional.  She speaks very little dialogue, and like the rest of the movie, a lot of what she is doing and what she is all about has to be inferred, but it’s all there.  You just have to pay attention.

I really liked UNDER THE SKIN.  I completely bought into its artistic vision of storytelling, for the simple reason that director Jonathan Glazer covers all bases and makes sure that in spite of the obscure scenes and nontraditional way of filming, that everything you need to know for it all to make sense is there.

This is a tale of some sort of alien race preying on humans for some form of sustenance, and how one alien, the one played by Johansson, develops an awareness of what she is doing and seems to make the connection that the beings she is devouring are not cattle but highly developed creatures.  She seems to almost want to become human at one point, to share in the human experience, and it’s this desire which ultimately puts her at odds with her superiors

Does everything about it work?  No.  As a writer, I would have enjoyed a bit more dialogue, but that being said, I am not complaining.  And as much as I loved the visual style of this movie, I found that at 108 minutes it was a bit long for a movie with this kind of pacing.  I did get a bit restless during the final 30 minutes or so.

But these are small matters.

As a whole I liked UNDER THE SKIN a lot.

In the mood for a science fiction film that will not insult your intelligence, but on the contrary will make you think long after it’s over, and that tells its tale not so much with words but with images, camera angles, uses of light and dark, and music?

Then check out UNDER THE SKIN.

Its title is true.  It’ll get under your skin.

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Julianne Moore’s Oscar-Winning Performance Leads STILL ALICE (2014) to Poignant Places

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Blu-Ray Review:  STILL ALICE (2014)still alice poster

by

Michael Arruda

When Julianne Moore, one of my favorite actresses, won the Oscar earlier this year for Best Actress for her performance as a woman suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in STILL ALICE (2014), I made sure I added this movie to my Netflix queue.

In STILL ALICE, Julianne Moore plays Alice Howland, a 50 year-old linguistics professor who at this stage of her life has everything going for her.  She enjoys a successful career.  She’s happily married to a great husband, John (Alec Baldwin) and she has three wonderful adult children.  She has little more to worry about other than trying to convince her youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart) to put off her stage acting career just long enough to go to college so she’ll have a fall back plan if acting doesn’t work out, an argument that never gets her anywhere since Lydia is adamant about her love of acting and resents her mom’s meddling.

But when Alice struggles to remember some of the words to her linguistics lecture, and later when she actually gets lost while jogging, she realizes something is wrong and she seeks medical help.  To her astonishment, she learns that she suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s, a disease for which there is no cure.  Worse, she is informed that her disease is genetic, which means she has likely passed on the gene to her children.

When she breaks the news to her husband John, he reacts first with denial before finally coming to terms with her diagnosis.  Their children are devastated but supportive.  Her oldest daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) is tested and learns she too has the disease, while her son Tom (Hunter Parrish) learns that he does not have the disease.  Lydia, ever the rebel, refuses to be tested, as she doesn’t want to know.

As the movie goes on, Alice’s condition deteriorates dramatically, and as she fights the losing battle to keep her memories and more importantly her dignity, and as her family struggles with watching her turn into someone they do not know, everyone strains to remember that through it all, she is still Alice, the wife and mom they all love.

STILL ALICE is not a happy movie.  But it is a rewarding one, even if the plight of Alice Howland, like real-life Alzheimer’s sufferers around the world, is one without a happy ending, as there remains no cure for Alzheimer’s.

As expected, Julianne Moore is excellent as Alice.  To watch her, a smart, albeit brilliant linguistic professor wrestle with her mental faculties is horribly depressing.  At one point in the movie, Alice makes a point of saying that being smart was her identity; it was how she saw herself.  For her, language, words, and linguistics were as much a part of her being as the way she looked, and now she was fighting to remember them.  It was, she said, as if the disease was ripping away her identity.

Moore captures completely the feeling of struggling with memory.  A distant lost look comes over her face, and suddenly her memory fails her.  It’s painful to watch.  Unable to put up much of a fight, Alice deteriorates into an entirely different person.  Once this disease takes hold of her, there’s nothing she can do to stop it.

Her best moment, and one of the best moments in the entire film, is when she speaks at an Alzheimer’s conference.  As she reads her speech, she highlights each written line in yellow to prevent her from reading it again because she can’t remember what she just read.  She makes many wonderful points in this speech.  One of them is how difficult it is for Alzheimer sufferers to be taken seriously when they seem so incapable and even ridiculous, but she reminds her audience that this is not who they are.  It’s the most poignant moment in the movie.

Alec Baldwin is effective as Alice’s husband John.  He doesn’t come across as the clichéd loving husband.  He is supportive, yes, and when Alice can’t take care of herself, he’s there to care for her, at first, but he doesn’t like it, and he struggles with having to watch his wife become a helpless person.  Later, he is offered a new position at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, far away from their New York home, and Alice asks him to delay the move, but he doesn’t want to.  It’s clear that he can’t handle taking care of his wife, even though he wants to.

He also talks down to Alice at times, as if she’s a child, telling her to go to bed when she was panicking about losing her phone, for example.  These scenes are frustrating, but they also come off as real.  John seems to love his wife very much.  He’s just not very good at dealing with her illness.

Baldwin and Moore work well together, as they did on TV’s 30 ROCK, where Julianne Moore guest-starred for a time as Baldwin’s love interest.

It was so good to see Kristen Stewart not in a TWILIGHT movie.  She’s really good here as Moore’s youngest and most rebellious daughter Lydia.  Other than Moore and Baldwin, she gives the best performance in the movie.  I don’t think I’ve ever said that about Stewart before.  Not that I’ve ever thought she was a poor actress, but that the films she was in rarely gave her the opportunity to do much more than brood.  This is probably the best role I’ve seen Stewart play.

It’s also a rewarding role.  Lydia butts heads with mom constantly, and yet, later when John is not there to care for his wife, it’s Lydia who moves in to take care of her mom.  In spite of their rocky relationship, Lydia and Alice share a special bond.

The rest of the cast is decent.  Kate Bosworth is fine as Alice’s oldest daughter, as is Hunter Parrish as their son Tom.  Parris must like playing Baldwin’s son, as this is the second time he’s played Baldwin’s son in a movie, having done so in the comedy IT’S COMPLICATED (2009), which also starred Meryl Streep and Steve Martin.

STILL ALICE was written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland.  Their screenplay was based on the novel by Lisa Genova.  These guys did a terrific job behind the camera.  They captured three fabulous acting performances by Moore, Baldwin, and Stewart, with Moore winning an Academy Award.  Sadly, Glatzer passed away earlier this year from complications from ALS.

STILL ALICE is a well-written, directed, and acted movie that reminds us of the finality of Alzheimer’s disease.  It follows one woman’s struggle to keep her dignity and remain relevant, even as her mind deteriorates to the point where she can’t even recognize her own children.  It’s also a showcase for Julianne Moore’s considerable acting talents.

Perhaps most importantly the film asks us to remember that people with Alzheimer’s aren’t simple-minded forgetful folks but individuals suffering from a disease without a cure, and as such, they deserve dignity and respect.

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