UNDER THE SKIN
Under the Skin, a dreamlike sci-fi/horror tale by director Jonathan Glazer, might just be the most fascinating, entrancing, thrilling movie I've ever seen given nearly unbearable viewing conditions.
In the film, which Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell adapted from a Michael Faber novel, Scarlett Johansson plays a British woman named Laura, a brunette beauty who drives around the streets of Glasgow in a beaten-up van and engages male passers-by in conversations that lead to seductions. That's what appears to be happening, at any rate. In actuality, "Laura" is an alien life form sent to Earth (we presume) for the harvesting of meat, with her unaware companions the daily specials. I don't want to describe much more about the plot, which Johannson succinctly and accurately described in a recent New Yorker interview as the story of an alien who "goes from an it to a her." And I'm not sure I can adequately describe Under the Skin's nearly endless stream of visual and aural amazements, from the sights of Laura's victims sinking into an inky goo while she blithely walks above them, to the tangible threat Glazer suffuses in the seeming banality of a shopping mall and a slice of chocolate cake, to the nightmarish buzz of Mica Levi's score, which suggests the interior of a particularly active, interplanetary hornets' nest.
With Johansson providing an extraordinarily subtle study in curiosity that, by the film's end, reaches levels of devastating emotionalism, Glazer's latest feature - following 2004's similarly enigmatic and brilliant Nicole Kidman thriller Birth - is truly astonishing, filled with scenes so powerful and images so arresting that they just might stick with me forever. (I'm reasonably certain I'll never forget the film's sight of an abandoned toddler wailing on a beach, or that of two submerged victims reaching out toward one another before morphing into epiderma.) Yet while I'm grateful, as ever, to Moline's Nova 6 Cinemas for securing this latest art-film release that likely wouldn't have found an area home elsewhere, I must, at present, insist that interested parties not view Under the Skin there - at least, not until a significant (and perhaps impossible) change is made regarding the movie's current location within the venue.
Barring Levi's music, which we hear during maybe one-fifth of the movie, and some occasional banter between Johansson and the men she encounters (most of whose Scottish brogues are so impenetrable that they suggest - intentionally, I think - an alien tongue), Under the Skin is a very, very quiet experience. And I don't know if it was a problem with this particular auditorium's acoustics, or if the walls separating auditoriums are merely papier-mâché thin, but every time there was a scene of silence or near-silence, all that my fellow patrons and I heard was the soundtrack from the movie playing next door, which happened to be Muppets Most Wanted. Don't get me wrong; I really like Muppets Most Wanted. But there was absolutely no way to surrender completely to the visual ravishments and blessed lack of sound in Glazer's achievement considering that every two minutes or so, the director's beautiful and startling compositions were waylaid by Sam the Eagle quarreling with Ty Burrell, or Tina Fey crooning about the pleasures of the Gulag, or Kermit the Frog screaming, "Ya-a-a-a-a-ay!!!" I'm convinced that Under the Skin is a great film. So great, in truth, that you should probably wait until its home-video release to see it.
LEGENDS OF OZ: DOROTHY'S RETURN
Loosely based on a book by L. Frank Baum's great-grandson Roger Staunton Baum - a book whose existence I had been blissfully unaware of - the computer-animated musical Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return opens with the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and (formerly Cowardly) Lion operating a mechanical device that will bring their plucky young friend back to the Emerald City. We're told that while it's been many Oz years since Dorothy left them, it will only seem, to her, like a day, and immediately the movie doesn't make any sense. If, indeed, only 24 Earth hours have passed since the events of The Wizard of Oz, why is Auntie Em now wearing jeans, and Kansas' resident villain driving around in a pink Cadillac? This kind of bizarre, vaguely unsettling disassociation takes place all throughout directors Will Finn's and Dan St. Pierre's film, a reasonably well-designed but deathly enervating outing that replaces the elder Baum's magic with standard-issue wisecracks, generic action scenes, and twee musical numbers that make it feel like substandard Saturday-morning fare performed by the cast of Glee. (Oftentimes quite literally, as Lea Michele voices, and over-sings, the character of Dorothy.) Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return's dismal $3.7-million opening weekend suggests, thankfully, that we won't have to worry about future animated installments of this sort. But if we do, I pray that more time is spent with the mildly amusing new characters voiced by Martin Short, Oliver Platt, Megan Hilty, Hugh Dancy, and Patrick Stewart, and far less with the ones we were already acquainted with, at least considering the vocals of Dan Aykroyd's Scarecrow, Kelsey Grammer's Tin Man, and Jim Belushi's Lion. I mistakenly thought that once Dorothy's traveling companions found, respectively, their brains, heart, and courage, they might wind up a little boring. Turns out they wind up irritating as hell.