Under the Skin ★★1/2

Scarlett Johansson

Under the Skin is original, strange, intelligent, but also a bit depressing and dull. It’s a movie for those who want to think deeply or those who admire a movie’s technique over its story. But this is not for the general audience.

The picture is labeled as Science Fiction, but it is more of a study on the nature of man. And it isn’t a favorable portrait. The story consists of a woman driving a van around Scotland. She looks at men who are walking alone. Then she selects one, stops the van, and seduces him into the vehicle. She takes him to her home. And this is the repeated process of the narrative.

The movie is an observation. A study on mens behavior. The message it gives is that men are promiscuous by nature. Present a beautiful and willing woman, and men would immediately submit themselves to her. This is  not a pleasant impression.  And to go further, it turns the story into an expression- A personal feeling of the writer.

Its techniques are clear– Subtlety, Sexual tension, and Silence. For most of the way, the story is vague. We understand that this woman is highly unusual. She likes to stare and fall into some kind of trance. But we are unsure about her attraction to men. And her home is a stage for symbolism. Art lovers should delight in interpreting what it all means.

As for tension, it is manipulated by character and predicament – Have an attractive woman drive alone at night , speaking to strangers in shady neighborhoods, and we naturally feel worried for her. Scarlett Johansson plays the woman, so there is more anxiety. 

The film is intimate and dialogue is sparse but it helps in some affecting moments. One sad encounter is with a humble and disfigured man who simply wants to do grocery shopping. Her questions and his reactions are quite mesmerizing to watch. Then there is an unexpected romance that, at the very least, presents that not all men are malicious.

So the movie, directed by Jonathan Glazer, is effective. But is this really entertainment? It will leave viewers mystified and sad, despite its style and craftiness. To appreciate it is to admire the movies techniques.

A Nightmare on Elm Street(1984) ★★★1/2

nightmare

A Nightmare on Elm Street is a creepy, bloody, and imaginative film. Unlike most horror movies whose villain is either physically or spiritually present, this one has an evil that can’t be categorized. He or it resides in people’s dreams, comes out into reality, and chases its victims with a big grin on its face.

It terrorizes the neighborhood of Elm Street, which looks like a pleasant suburb. But from what is later learned, it is just a façade. The place buries a dark past and the parents seem to have issues. Two teenagers (Heather Langenkamp and Johnny Depp) are the main characters of this story, and they are being haunted by the same nightmare- a crusty looking man with a black hat and blades attached to his fingers. His name is Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund).

His attacks differ in methods but not without play. He will spook, give chase, appear in different places, and then finally claw at them. He attacks them in their dreams and unless they wake up, it carries over into reality. In one sequence a bloody victim is hoisted above her bed and tossed about.

So this is creepy stuff. But yet, the film is also a bit goofy. There are a couple of moments where Freddy tries to wrestle his victim, and we notice that he is a bit clumsy, short, and skinny. A man of average strength would have a good chance of stopping him. But aside from considering that motion is restricted in a dream, we also learn that Freddy is a shape shifter. His arms can stretch like a clothesline and in the closing scene, one might even argue that he has transformed into a convertible.

Written and directed by Wes Craven, A Nightmare on Elm Street is a horror film that is scary, disturbing, and creative. It has terrifying imagery, an inventive premise, and lots of effective sound effects, not to mention that memorable creepy piano score.

When Harry Met Sally ★★★

when harry

When Harry Met Sally is a funny and intelligent romantic comedy that examines the attraction between men and women. This is isn’t a typical or shallow love story that depends on performances. This is a dialogue driven film with very charismatic actors.

Sally is travelling to New York and Harry needs a lift. So they travel together by car and share some interesting conversations. Most of them are indelicate, care of Harry. He’s a good guy but with unbearably cheeky manners. Naturally this annoys Sally. But despite finding him offensive, she undeniably finds him interesting.

At this point, the narrative is predictable. But the film is not about the narrative or payoff. It is all about smart conversations, many of which revolve around the friendships between men and women. A recurring question by Harry is whether it’s possible for a man to become friends with an attractive woman. He believes it isn’t because the male instinct gets into the way. Sally thinks otherwise. The point is that the topic, along with many different others, are thrown out there to ponder on.

The film is also about how romantic couples are made. Different opinions are given. There is reference of the typical: women seeking rich career-oriented men while the males only seek physical attraction. But others look further like Harrys friends, who prefer partners with common interests. It also looks into why people might prefer being single and those that desire marriage and family. The dialogue is wide range in mentioning all sorts of opinions.

The two leads Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal are the icing on this cake. They are very appealing on screen. They are very engaged with the material and charming in their delivery. Crystal is a natural comedian and Ryan is energetic and bright. Also helpful is the supporting cast of Bruno Kirby and Carrie Fisher as the couple’s friends. Directed by Rob Reiner, When Harry Met Sally is a romantic comedy that is well worth a visit.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ★★★

dawn of the planet

Spoiler Alert

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a summer blockbuster in the good sense. That means great action and a simple but emotionally involving story. There have been lots of big budget actioners over the past few years, but few carry the emotional weight of this movie.

Continuing 10 years(or more) after the apes escape in “Rise”, we are shown a map of the world designating areas contaminated by a virus. A cure is lacking, mankind is slowly becoming extinct, and cities are deteriorating. But the apes are unaffected and have grown as a community. They now have a village outside San Francisco and Caesar is their leader.

But we know that Caesar understands humans more than any other ape. And so after an incident involving the shooting of a fellow ape, he forgives the guilty party and just tells them to leave. From this point forward, the plot takes the right direction. Yes it eventually becomes about a war, but not without emphasis on its root cause – the failure to communicate.

Every time the humans and apes come within view of one another, there is tension. We worry about words and mannerisms that would be misinterpreted by either group. It is here that a reflection on our society sets in. We think about conflicts between individuals, armies, and nations and how much of it is caused by fear based on the failure to communicate.  Much of this causes the troubles in the story and they draw insight into reality.

But the film is also affecting because of Caesar. This special effect of an ape (handled by Andy Serkis) might deserve an acting award. His expression is naturally bitter for most of the time, but it can also evoke  leadership, control, sympathy, grief, weakness, fury, and even wisdom. You forget that you are seeing a Motion Capture effect, and are convinced of a real ape onscreen.

The story treads on familiar ground and culminates with a fight scene on a crumbling high rise. Caesar has a violent conflict with another ape named Koba who carries hatred for humans.  His grudge is harbored so deeply that it’s irreversible. Yet we sense it coming from pain and not evil.

So no one should be disappointed by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes(directed by Matt Reeves). It’s got good performances by both species including human actors Gary Oldman and Jason Clarke.  The movie supplies the action but depends on human insight and reasoning.

 

How to Train Your Dragon2 ★★★1/2

how to train your dragon

Spoiler alert

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a great sequel, an all-encompassing story with so many conflicts that one could lose track. It also has battles scenes that are contenders for action spectacle of the year. We’re talking “Lord of the Rings” scale.

The film  is an achievement, particularly considering the first movie – can anyone remember a standout event? We remember its summary: a weak boy finds a wounded dragon, secretly trains it, they develop a bond, and together save the village against a dangerous foe.

But How to Train Your Dragon 2 is much more. It contains heavier motives and more to remember. The Viking village introduces a sporting event that resembles Harry Potter’s Quidditch. It is here that we get to acquaint with the characters and their dragons. Then we see more CGI spectacles of them maneuvering above and below the clouds, above oceans, glaciers, mountains, and hidden islands. It’s all breathtaking scenery.

But how about the conflicts. Let’s count them. 1.Hiccup(voiced by Jay Baruchel) refuses to become King. 2.Hiccup and Toothless clash with Dragon thieves 3.After passing the news over to the Viking clan, Vikings declare war on thieves 4.Hiccup doesn’t want a war 5.Hiccup disagrees with his Father. Ok, let’s stop there. But no, wait. Hiccup then flies away and meets somebody from his past, which then complicates all the conflicts.

We are given the impression of a confusing movie. It isn’t. The narrative is quite easy to follow and settles into a grand battle, the way these types usually end. But a couple of the dragons look different. We’re talking huge, mountain sized, with horns protruding from their backs and fronts, and they don’t exactly fly but rather submerge. One of them is owned by a particularly nasty looking villain with dreadlocks and scars and a growling voice to match.

So there it is, a thrilling spectacle. A memorable and enjoyable animated movie directed by Dean Deblois. Probably the best animated film of the year. Much better than Frozen. It makes up for the lackluster predecessor and puts the franchise into a better position.

Wall Street ★★★★

wall street

Wall Street is a great movie for several reasons. Among them are the pre-requisites-interesting subject, arresting dialogue, and a fearsome villain. But what makes it particularly impressive is how it combines fiction with satire.

Some satirical movies are mostly about communicating a message; about influencing the viewers. The story becomes secondary. But Wall Street has a fictional story that is actually more entertaining than its message. It’s directed by Oliver Stone, a brave messenger, and this is one of his best films.

None of the lead characters are heroes. All are victims, some more experienced than others. We meet Bud Fox, a young and determined stock broker who works for a decent firm. He’s one of those guys who’s on the phone all day long, punching numbers, and repeating sales pitches to customers, most of whom are not even slightly interested.

He’s hoping for that big investor and huge commission. And so is everyone else at his office, working at a rapid pace, and watching the digital board. It’s a place of urgency and Oliver Stone understands this very well, rapidly shifting and sliding his camera to observe the business operation.

Then Bud gets his big break. He is granted an appointment with Gordon Gekko, an expert but ruthless investor. Gekko is the subject of this movie, giving Wall Street a personification of evil. This man doesn’t care about the opportunities that stock investments present for the economy, companies, or employees. His only concern is his greed…and greed is good, he says.

But Bud doesn’t seem to care either. He soon becomes Gekkos’ apprentice, protégé, and servant. He reads the Art of War by Sun Tzu, the same book Gekko admires. He moves to an upper-class neighborhood, luxurious apartment, dates female models, and rides limousiones. And most sinister of all, he starts to adapt Gekkos investing techniques.

Despite being a movie about its dialogue, the film is never boring. The actors do justice to an intriguing script. Michael Douglas as Gekko is an aggressive and merciless go-getter, who buys out companies with a mischievous smile. Charlie Sheen is Fox as an eager learner, controlled by Gekko, but still on the way to discovering himself. And Martin Sheen as Buds father is a blue collar worker, who is supportive but can foresee the crooked path his son is taking.

As far as financial thrillers go, Wall Street is probably the best there is. It consistently entertains with intelligent dialogue and engaged cinematography, while leaving several messages to ponder on.

 

Risky Business ★★★

risky business

Risky Business delivers its message with confidence : “Once in a while you need to say what the ***k and just go for it!”. Here is a satire about  reaching goals, satisfying desires, and being happy. It also promotes recklessness but since the film is a comedy, it gets away with it.

Joel(Tom Cruise) is close to finishing high school and the pressure is on. He feels compelled to enrolling into a prestigious college. But he is unsatisfied with life and a career path to becoming rich doesn’t interest him. In fact he is a very frustrated teen. A lot of this is based on a sexual frustration- a fantasy is revealed early on but interrupted by visions of him failing the college exam. This guy is under a lot of pressure, and it doesn’t help that his parents are an uptight couple who are hard to please.

So things change. When they leave for a short vacation, Joel is left home alone. A friend forces an idea on him: hire a prostitute to settle his desires once and for all. So he does, but this is only the beginning of an unexpected adventure. Soon he is in huge debt with the prostitute (Rebecca De Mornay), has to outrun a dangerous pimp, furthers his troubles with schooling, damages his dad’s Porsche, and starts a wild business venture at home. The way the story resolves this, the way it wraps up, is brilliant among other things.

It’s directed by Paul Brickman and what an entertaining film it is. As much as the movie is about sexual desire, it is equally about pursuing any desire. In a way, sex is only a medium for delivering its universal message: if you want something, don’t think! just go for it! It’s a satire that defends the ways of passion over morality. However as a comedy, that becomes frivolous. Instead what remains is a movie about teenage frustrations. Desires. Angst. It celebrates reckless courage. Forget the standard! the norm!, it yells while laughing. Joel is played by Tom Cruise who demonstrates his broad dramatic range. His character  begins the film with insecurity and frustration. He ends it with confidence, looking cool and wearing sunglasses. Now all he has to do is remove the shades and grow up to reality.

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