The opening sequence of Under the Skin is a pastiche of shape and colour, with faint babble in the background. It encompasses the beginnings of form, language and the creation of the eye; setting the scene for what develops into a transcendental piece of cinema.
The unnamed alien protagonist prowls Scotland in search of men, preying on them as coldly as possible. She is the observer, untouchable. Her remorseless is demonstrated in a disturbing scene where she casually abandons an orphaned infant. She is an outsider whose ability to charm men is both her asset and only advantage. Then, she makes the human mistake of tripping over, and everything falls apart. The film asks us whether one can imitate a woman without becoming one, and the more the alien tries to fight her body, the more it seems to engulf her. She begins to awkwardly demonstrate her vulnerability – perhaps unwillingly. And the more she feels at home in her female skin, the more unsafe she is. Skin becomes a motif which is threaded throughout the film, each time reminding us that what is on the surface is sometimes all that anyone can see.
In terms of presentation, Under the Skin derives a sense of genuine humanity from improvised acting by unwitting persons. Scotland is a muted hell, a “nowhere” where people can disappear, both figuratively and literally. The bleak landscape creates a disquieting atmosphere, aided greatly by Mica Levi’s fantastic score. Most impressively, Under the Skin subverts expectation with some bewildering and sensual scenes that are abstract enough to provoke questions, but centred enough to anchor the film in one place. There is a focus here from open to close, resulting in a very complete, if equivocal, piece of cinema.
A powerfully hypnotic debut from director Anna Rose Holmer.
It is rare to see a film in which each sound feels so carefully produced. In the first few seconds of The Fits, we hear but a whisper – a whisper which later becomes a voice. There is little dialogue here, most of which comes from secondary characters, and not the near-silent protagonist. The result is that her voice, when it does speak, echoes through the building and reverberates off the walls.
Rhythm is a key component of this film. Music, sometimes non-diagetic, compels our heroine Toni to dance – quite badly, each limb spasming out of control, her body exploding in every direction but without form. Her movements mimic the real seizures that play out over and over again, somehow always in the corner of the frame, far away. Toni isn’t afraid of the eponymous epidemic sweeping across her community centre; after all, she doesn’t behave like the other girls. There’s a distinctly masculine energy surrounding her, from her enjoyment of boxing with her older brother to the subtle moment she expresses disinterest at being told to pose with hands on hips. She isn’t scared, or maybe she is. But what of? This film has no clear villain, no obvious threat.
The intriguing thing about The Fits is the suggestion that the seizures are not out of the girl’s control. They somehow become a rite of passage, a test of one’s ability to belong to the selective clique of womanhood. Without this hint, the film would be an uncomplicated thriller; with it, the film treads a delicate line between ambiguity and reveal. The final moment of surrender is breathtaking and resonant. This is a film that hits every beat, and throws a few punches in along the way; a tale that has to be seen (and heard) to be believed.
Visually exquisite, but haunted by its origins.
What makes us human? Is it our thoughts, our sense of self, our mind? Or is it our bodies, our physiology? Ghost in the Shell (2017) touches on these questions in a superficial way, while delivering incredible action sequences set in a visually sublime postmodern Tokyo.
It is necessary to acknowledge the political shadow that has been cast over this film since the early days of production. Happily, the majority of the cast is international; there is a fair amount of japanese dialogue and the acting is engaging – from Kuze’s pitiful twitches to The Major’s intense stare. Mamoru Oshii, director of the original Ghost in the Shell (1995) believes that Johansson was right for the role. And yes, the fictional landscape of Ghost in the Shell complicates the idea of racial representation – bodies are just vessels to be modified, mechanical and almost obsolete. At the same time, our twenty-first century world is one in which race does matter, where lack of visibility continues to marginalise outsiders, and where representation becomes important. It is an issue which cannot help but leave an uncomfortable mark on an otherwise well-presented film.
Ghost in the Shell is also a remake. This inherently requires it to walk a delicate line between paying tribute to the source material and reinventing it. This is done quite well – die-hard fans will appreciate the nearly identical scenes taken from the first film, such as the garbage-truck shootout – and the new choices feel natural and build upon existing lore. With a saturated colour pallet and a techno-dirty aesthetic, Ghost in the Shell is thrilling and beautiful. Its weakest point is the plot, which requires a few leaps of logic and feels somewhat oversimplified. It lacks the intriguing philosophy that fans of the franchise may expect. Regardless, the development of a classic revenge-based narrative fits with the style of the film and delivers a satisfying conclusion.
Ultimately, Ghost in the Shell survives the remake process mostly intact. It stands alone as an action-thriller with an intrinsic backdrop and well-choreographed fight scenes. It is a must-see for cyberpunk enthusiasts new and old.
A genre-defying masterpiece.
Death is often about bodies. In accordance, Personal Shopper first shows us, medically, the body of our protagonist – a fundamentally weak body. Bodies are dressed, undressed, posed and brutalized. Nothing is left unchecked in the latest film from director Olivier Assayas and starring Kristen Stewart. Personal Shopper weaves together several distinct plot-lines into a singular, cohesive narrative exploring everything from our relationship with pretty clothes to the afterlife.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Personal Shopper is its refusal to be defined. Not quite a ghost story, not quite a fashion walkway – it thrills, it chills and it puzzles. The mansion which we are introduced to is grandiose, creaky and terrifying, especially as Stewart’s barely audible whispers drift down its dilapidated halls. And then the real thrills begin – a series of mysterious messages from an unknown sender add another dense layer to the mystery. One of the most sublime elements of the film is Stewart’s waltz with the designer dresses of her client; an exploration of her desire, her self-confessed fear of the forbidden. All of which is set against the backdrop of Paris and London – with their cobbled streets and dusky skies presenting an earthy, handsome landscape.
Impressively, for a film that explicitly shows us supernatural figures and occurrences, it remains starkly ambiguous whether anything is real or imagined. This is the film’s centre, its equivocal metaphysics create an aesthetic of enigma. Never is this more clear than in the climatic hotel scene – shots of corridors, empty lifts and gunshots are mashed together brokenly. Yet, for a film which so overtly lacks definition, it is hardly unsatisfying – a cinematic feat given the abundance of unpredictable, inconclusive narrative threads. Stewart’s own dialogue is relatively minimal, but when she does speak, she delivers utterly poignant lines. Her final question is the one that viewers will have imprinted on their minds long after they’ve left the cinema. What remains is an homage to grief – with all its complexities, sensitivities and inexpressible pains.
Disgusting and brilliant all at once.
Not all great movies are beautiful. None less so than The Greasy Strangler, a relentlessly oily horror-comedy. Surprisingly, the schlockiest film of the last few years might also be one of the most accomplished cult sensations. This is truly a cult film in every sense: the grease is less bearable than the gore, and permeates every scene with dripping delight.
The production design is incredible. From the grey skies to the blaring disco, colour is used strikingly. Ugliness becomes woven into the film’s identity, from the unappealing bodies of the two protagonists to the ritualistic greasy murders. Even the genitals of Brayden and Big Ronnie are comically shriveled and lumpy (and forever on display). There’s an aesthetic of isolated madness – none of the residents of this small town behave ordinarily, and dialogue is stilted, repetitive and mind-numbing – like putting an ear to the wall of a lunatic asylum. And speaking of ears, the soundtrack is equally revolting, featuring odd baby-like chatter and evoking a demented nursery rhyme.
Nothing could be more appropriate for a film that is so purposefully childish. Crass humor, fart jokes and bizarre chanting abound. And yet, lurking behind this veneer of senseless absurdity is a surprisingly touching story about love, family and identity. Perhaps this is what gives “The Greasy Strangler” its edge – the poignancy of Brayden’s awkwardly lost virginity, the tragedy of Big Ronnie’s fear of loneliness. Or maybe it’s the exploding eyeballs – either would suffice. Not for the faint-hearted, The Greasy Strangler is definitely worth seeing.
‘Life’ is rather lifeless.
From the very beginning, Life informs us of its key influence – the title font alone bears a striking resemblance to that of Alien (1979). The problem is that Life doesn’t seem to know whether it is a tribute film or a less intelligent imitation. The references are too overt to be unintentional, yet the film never quite manages to venerate the original franchise that defines it. Life positions itself in a way that forces comparisons between it and Alien – but side by side, it is clear that the latter is supreme. The monster – a gelatinous octopus – cannot hold a candle to the primal, parasitic nightmare that is the Xenomorph. Exceptionally, the first few establishing minutes (and a terrifically unexpected first death) promise greater thrills throughout the film. What a shame, then, that neither the cast nor the writing can save this film from falling flat. Though by no means offensive, Life fails to provide anything authentic, discarding potentially rich plot-lines by the wayside.