Holiday Season Movie Roundup: Part 3

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I have seen only a fraction of the movies released in 2014, but I must say I’m impressed. The comedies were genuinely funny, with 22 Jump Street improving on its predecessor and The Lego Movie becoming a whip-smart landmark in mainstream animated film. The social criticism was sharp, as embodied most powerfully by Nightcrawler‘s attack on the modern-day DIY capitalist mindset; Gone Girl‘s cynical polemic against the American bourgeois and the institution of marriage; and Birdman‘s multifaceted breakdown of the showbiz life. The action was top-notch as well—Captain America: The Winter Soldier stood head-and-shoulders above most of its MCU counterparts in terms of kinetic grace, and The Raid 2: Berandal, while sluggish in plot, featured some of the most breathtaking fight scenes I’ve ever seen. Then there were the movies that moved me in profound ways: Boyhood, for one, but also Life, Itself, the documentary on the late Roger Ebert. The unexpectedly great Guardians of the Galaxy won me with its humor and heart, The Immigrant with its earnest performances and compassionate story.

The list continues, and I look forward to discovering more of the year’s films in the months leading up to the Oscars, sometime before which I will release my top films of 2014. In the meantime, I salute a wonderful year at the movies by presenting this last part of my holiday review series. Granted, I did not love all the films I wrote about, but they were all nonetheless part of a cinematic year whose overall impact on me was unusually strong. I hope you enjoy my reviews, and Happy New Year!

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is probably the funniest Lord of the Rings movie to date. Some of this humor is intentional, as when a dwarf commander rides imperiously onto the battlefield only to break the gravity with a theatrically thick Scottish accent. Some of it was probably unintended, as when Legolas, taking a break from his arrow shooting, sees his love interest tumbling down the side of a mountain—a grievous discovery for sure, but the extreme long shot used to capture her fall diminishes the impact of the moment for us, inadvertently creating the visual equivalent of drolly wry understatement. One of the film’s greatest comedic moments, however, is neither clearly deliberate nor overtly accidental, and it arises from a question implicit within the film’s title: how does one assemble not two or three but five armies in one location in an economical and believable way, then have them duke it out in an equally plausible fashion?

One doesn’t, apparently. As each additional army promptly files in—there are clear lapses in movie time between each arrival, but to us, it feels as if each band of fighters more or less teleported on scene from their respective kingdoms—there is an air of happenstance, as if everybody had wandered inconveniently into the same place at the same time. Something about the improbable proliferation of entrances in quick succession gives the scene a surreal, even farcical quality. My normal response would be to dismiss this moment as the product of poor pacing, but in this case, I kept wondering whether there was perhaps a hint of irony in the film’s self-seriousness, revealed through the scene’s borderline ridiculous setup. It’s not that absurd of a prospect, given that Jackson directed schlock horror-comedies before his Middle-Earth days.

This idea of an impish Jackson colored the rest of the film for me, perhaps erroneously, and I was thus quite entertained by aspects of the film I wouldn’t have found appealing otherwise. For instance, the way in which the film seems to rush sloppily through various trademarks of earlier Lord of the Rings/Hobbit installments (the grandiloquent speech, the sudden turn of the tide, the final boss battle), to the point where each feels reduced in importance, presents the possibility that Jackson may be poking fun at the conventions of the war epic. Then there are all those scenes with the dwarf king Thoren, whose deranged avarice leads to several hilarious, hallucinatory moments that appear to lampoon the kind of internal conflict caused by the One Ring of the original Lord of the Rings films.

Again, all this is mere speculation, and if the film really did have meta-cinematic intentions, it certainly could have been clearer about them. In the end, The Battle of the Five Armies may simply be a bumbling trilogy-closer that, while punctuated by lithe FX-heavy action scenes, is a far cry from the first three Lord of the Rings films. But maybe, just maybe, the movie is the result of a bored director who’s been stuck with the same franchise for so long that he’s decided to turn his latent, satirical edge on the very movies he directed and, by extension, the studios who hired him. After all, this is the guy who, despite helming one of the most lucrative franchises ever made, said in a Dec. 19 interview with, “I don’t really like the Hollywood blockbuster bandwagon that exists right now.”  Grade: B-

Under the Skin

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This film came out a while back, but I just saw it last week and felt compelled to write something, although that “something” is bound to be scattered and convoluted because I’m still not sure what to think about the movie. Here is a film that pulses with ideas waiting to be uncovered, but until a second viewing (hopefully) grants me more insight, I will have to stick with initial impressions and speculative readings. Don’t expect too much from this review, but know that there is much more to the film than I’m describing here. The grade I assigned at the end of this piece is provisional, reflective more of my temporary uncertainty than the full potential of what the film has to offer.

Anyway, here goes nothing:

Under the Skin tracks a peripatetic alien whose earthly form is played by Scarlett Johansson. Prowling the streets of Scotland, this creature uses the full arsenal of Johansson’s physical endowments to lure lustful men into a mysterious, abstract space where she, the alien, decomposes them in a black liquid. Immediately striking about this setup is the way in which the film aligns us, both visually and narratively, with a female hunter who dupes men by manipulating the male gaze—this point of identification seems to be a marked subversion of phallocentric Hollywood, which has traditionally structured its aesthetic choices around male fantasies. But the film’s scope appears to be broader still—in a way, Under the Skin takes the female perspective, but a more accurate description would be to say it takes the perspective of an alien taking the female perspective. Thus, the film’s vantage point exists outside gender entirely, and gender itself comes under scrutiny. Because we are made aware that there is an alien “under the skin” who is performing the social conventions associated with gender, our attention is directed to these cues themselves and the ways in which they are performed in real life.

The blurb on the back of the DVD case for Under the Skin aptly describes the film as “about seeing ourselves through alien eyes,” and appropriately, the first body part of the embodied alien that we see is the eye, which will become a visual motif in the film. Like the all-seeing eye that opens Blade Runner, this eye signifies the importance of gaze, our gaze, as we take the angle of an outsider who can examine society and human nature from an unbiased standpoint. Gender as both biology and social construct is a major focal point for the film; there are probably many others. On the alien’s part, the aforementioned unbiasedness is jeopardized in the film’s latter half, which illuminates the alternatively beautiful and destructive tendencies of our race not through clinical observation as in the film’s earlier portions but through a case study: the movie shows what happens when an otherworldly being, previously untethered to mankind, is touched by humanity.

I suspect all this is merely a fraction of what Under the Skin aims to convey, and I’ll admit, sometimes the film’s opaqueness can be frustrating. One does wonder with films like these whether the oblique approach is genuinely artful or merely putting on the appearance of being artful. Ultimately, though, I believe the movie refuses us clear answers to make us observe and interpret for ourselves. The film wants us to actively think through its vision, a level of engagement that wouldn’t be possible if the movie had simply presented us with everything explicitly; as many grade school English teachers say at one point, “Show don’t tell.” And while not immediately decipherable, what Under the Skin shows us is, I believe, something quite extraordinary.  Grade: B+


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