“We wanted to create a space that felt alien, but in the knowledge that you’re limited by the fact that you’re doing it using human imagination… So then you’re kind of in dream space, or nightmare… You’re trying to get to places that are more felt than thought.”–Jonathan Glazer
PLOT: An alien comes to Earth and assumes the form of a human woman. She drives around Scotland in a van, picking up unattached single men with no families and taking them back to her lair, where she performs a bizarre ritual that eventually consumes them. After an encounter with a deformed man, she decides to go rogue and flees to the countryside, pursued by an overseer on a motorcycle.
The movie was in development for more than a decade.
Many of the scenes were filmed documentary style, with Johansson (unrecognizable in a wig with sunglasses) walking around Scottish streets and shopping malls. Some of the men who entered the van were not actors, but were being filmed without their knowledge. It’s been reported that the team shot over 270 hours of total footage.
PLOT: While tracking down a terrorist, a cyborg cop discovers that her target may be connected to her own mysterious past.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:Ghost in the Shell paints a vivid and sometimes disturbing vision of a future where power is consolidated in a handful of corporations and people are in thrall to robotics and body modifications. Some of the ideas remain surprising and unusual, but many more have been disseminated far and wide, leaving the story’s innovations dated and even tedious.
COMMENTS: The problem with being an innovator is that when others use and expand upon your innovations, you end up looking like you’re late to the party. Such is the position that Ghost in the Shell finds itself in; coming years after the original manga comic and a celebrated animé adaptation (which this reviewer has neither read nor seen), the new live-action film has to prove itself in a landscape that it has already influenced extensively. The result is that Ghost in the Shell, a slick-looking dystopian film interested in the loss of identity, is in the awkward position of being derivative of itself. The ad-dominated skyline of a neo-Hong Kong megalopolis is taken directly from Blade Runner. The visualization of the world as a wilderness of code references The Matrix. The incomplete android woman seems to shout-out Ex Machina. There are images that shock and amuse: a geisha robot who assumes the pose of a spider, a pair of flip-up eyes, an elaborate assembly line for building a humanoid robot shell. But too much of the film, while spectacularly realized, has a been-there, done-that vibe.
That puts a lot of weight on the shoulders of Scarlett Johansson, and she is a strong enough actress to pull off the internalized torment of a character who is intentionally devoid of personality. Considering the collection of archetypes she’s acting opposite (the loyal partner, the duplicitous maternal figure, the absurdly cartoonish villain who actually utters the line, “that’s the problem with the human heart”), she manages to make a real person out of a cypher who could easily have been little more than an ass-kicking sex object. However, given her previous turns as an alien attempting to decipher humanity, an operating system achieving sentience, and a party girl coming to grips with the untapped reaches of her own mind , it’s fair to argue that Johansson, like the movie she’s in, is revisiting old themes.
But it is impossible to talk about the actress without discussing the elephant in the room: based on the source material, her role is an Asian woman, which she is decidedly not. The whitewashing accusation is clearly an issue that resonates; the studio now admits that the controversy may have negatively impacted box office returns. It’s not clear-cut: Johansson’s performance does a lot to justify the studio’s trust in her, the history of race in manga is deeply complex, and fans in the story’s native Japan were completely nonplussed by the furor. Indeed, the new film itself stands as a kind of monument to the internationalization of Hollywood product. From the studios (American, Chinese) to the locations (Hong Kong, New Zealand) to the cast (American, Japanese, Danish, British, Singaporean, French, Romanian, Australian, Kurdish-Polish), Ghost in the Shell is aggressively global.
All this would be easier to dismiss if the adapters hadn’t written the controversy directly into the script. In this telling of the tale, the brain that is transferred into Johansson’s android body turns out to be that of a young Japanese woman. This makes the loss of identity palpable, in that this consciousness is transplanted with no respect to its sense of self, but that tragedy is terribly trivialized if you view the filmmakers as having done the same thing. The choice—whether through total cluelessness or extreme chutzpah—is a mortal blow to the story’s credibility.
Ultimately, the casting of Johansson just another example of the filmmakers trying to have it all. Her character is divorced from humanity, yet repeatedly sexualized. (In particular, in the wake of a bomb blast, the damage all seems to located primarily at her chest and genitals, meaning we are staring in the general vicinity of Johansson’s privates as a team of 3D printers reassemble her body.) It wants to be an action thriller with a brain, but the exploration of identity is entirely surface-level, while the action is perfunctory and punctuated by one-liners that fall flat. Beyond “let’s make a live-action version of Ghost in the Shell,” there’s not much of a reason for this movie, no greater vision. Since it doesn’t know what else it wants to be, it ends up being not very much at all.
In 1935, Peter Lorre (in one of his few great roles) seared the screen as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment (Josef von Sternberg directed, unevenly). Woody Allen is too original to give us a direct adaptation of his literary hero, but he certainly utilizes a Dostoyevsky diving board for his own Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), just as he did (in parody) in Love and Death (1975).
Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau) is a phenomenally successful Manhattan ophthalmologist having an extramarital affair with flight attendant Dolores (Anjelica Huston). It’s his first affair, and it turns out to be brief and tragic. Judah consults with both his blind rabbi best friend Ben (Sam Waterston) and his mafioso brother Jack (Jerry Orbach). Both give contrasting advice, as expected. As he did in 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen utilizes a large ensemble cast here, interweaving character narratives. Allen himself plays Cliff Stern; a serious low-budget documentarian who, through family connections, has been commissioned to make a promotional film about smug television producer Lester (Alan Alda).
Landau earned an Academy Award nomination for his role. He had been nominated for the previous year’s Tucker: A Man and His Dreams and would be nominated again (and finally win) in 1995 for playing Bela Lugosi in Tim Burton‘s Ed Wood. Landau shines in his nail-biting, pacing-the-floor moments, but it’s Alda as the vulgar, bouncing-off-the-walls, dumbed-down producer who steals the film.
Both Lester and Cliff are competing for Halley (Mia Farrow). Will she choose the romantic outsider artist, or status through money? As Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) tells Georgie Wiess (Mike Stall) in Ed Wood, “Georgie, this is drama.” Actually, here it’s bleak comedy, and the film peaks with this love triangle.
Crimes And Misdemeanors repeats familiar Allen themes. As in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) there is love unrewarded. As in Dostoyevsky, there is murder unpunished. Despite those familiar themes, Crimes and Misdemeanors excels in lucid, innovative storytelling. There is symbolism aplenty (the blind rabbi, the ophthalmologist’s father warning him that God can see everything). It is the type of film that literary minded students are prone to dissect, but Crimes’ self-assured humor is what wins us over.
In Match Point (2005), Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” serves as Allen’s literary reference (in addition to Dostoyevsky). Some critics found it a weaker sibling to Crimes and Misdemeanors, but also noted it was Allen’s best film in a decade. Putting aside sophomoric better than or weaker than gauges, Match Point again finds Woody in superior narrative form. He has listed it as being his best work, undoubtedly aided considerably by Remi Adefarasin’s icy, noirish lens work. At 124 minutes, it is also his longest film to date. Refreshingly, Allen is forthright about influences when Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is depicted reading “Crime And Punishment.”
The object of Chris’ obsession is Nola (Scarlett Johansson), and the two lead actors give sizzling performances. Myers’ mechanically cold blue eyes contrast with Johansson’s earthy anxiousness (Allen worked with her again in 2006’s Scoop and 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Like the antagonist/protagonist in Dreiser’s epic work, Chris comes from poverty. He is on a tennis tour when meets affluent pro Tom (Matthew Goode). Tom’s girlfriend is the wannabe actress Nola. At the opera, Tom plays cupid, introducing Chris to his single sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). The seeds of marrying right are planted. However, after Tom dumps Nola (she doesn’t live up to familial expectations), Chris throws the proverbial monkey wrench into his own machinery when he begins a torrid affair and impregnates Nola.
Allen takes a smarter route than George Stevens did in A Place In The Sun (1951), his update of “An American Tragedy.” In the earlier film, Stevens cast Shelley Winters as an unattractive, pathetically nagging girlfriend to Montgomery Clift. When Clift contemplates murdering Winters to further his romance with the wealthy Elizabeth Taylor (in one of her most sensuous roles), we can only feel relief. Although none of the characters in Match Point rise above being reprehensible, Johansson, at her most complex, inspires more sympathy than Winters did. As in the source material, there is a pointed condemnation of unfettered capitalism, but Allen also makes a comment about existence without meaning: “I’d rather be lucky than good.” By removing himself from the film’s ensemble cast, Allen’s commitment to the unfolding narrative is complete. Upon its release, many critics cast it as Allen’s most atypical film. There is a degree of truth in that, but Allen also manages to make avarice and homicide pay, when we almost expect a Dickens-like Scrooge to heed the ghost’ warning. In Allen’s world, the response is quite different.
PLOT: An American student develops godlike powers when she is accidentally dosed with an experimental drug.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: I’m unsure whether Luc Besson is just joshing around here or whether Lucy the worst premise for a seriously intended science fiction movie of the year, but even the sight of Scarlett Johansson morphing into a black tentacle biocomputer can’t compensate for the feeling that you’re using less and less of your cerebral capacity the longer you watch this movie.
COMMENTS: Lucy may be a looney lark, or it may be one of the dumbest sci-fi movies to come down the pike in quite some time. The premise, that human beings have areas of the brain they never use which might house great untapped powers, might have played in the 1970s at the height of the paranormal craze, but in the age of the Internet, everyone who can read an IMDB message board is aware that the old “humans only use 10% of our minds” canard is complete b.s. And of course, even if it were true that you could find ways to utilize more of your “cerebral capacity,” that wouldn’t allow you to flex your neurons on objects located outside your cranium, change your hair color, or commandeer cell phone signals. Lucy‘s plot device is just a trick to give its protagonist whatever magical powers she needs to breeze past her next obstacle. The science in this fiction is on the sophistication level of a Marvel superhero movie, except those omnipotent heroes are always given equally omnipotent villains to square off against. Here, there’s no one in the movie capable of even landing a blow on Lucy from the very first moment she develops her powers, which creates a very odd, tension-free dynamic. It’s somewhat to the film’s credit that this lack of inherent conflict doesn’t completely kill it, but the main way the movie soldiers on is by throwing another action or effects sequence at you every five minutes: Lucy telekinetically flinging gangsters around the room, Lucy commandeering a cop car and putting her 40% optimized cerebral capacity to work stunt driving down the streets of Paris. The movie’s emphasis on action set pieces is completely and ridiculously at odds with its supposed philosophical ruminations about human evolution and the nature of time. It ends with a totally irrelevant bloodbath shootout that makes no logical sense whatsoever.
To his credit, Besson does toss most of his kitchen appliances into the movie, leaving only the sink unthrown. The effects are spectacular and are clearly the only reason for the movie to exist. There’s Lucy’s spontaneous levitation, the curtain of multicolored beams she sees descending from the heavens which she can swipe and manipulate like a cell phone app, and the spectacular moment when her facial molecules inconveniently start to drift apart during an airline flight. Besson includes references to 2001: A Space Odyssey (ape men), The Tree of Life (dinosaurs), and the Sistine Chapel (by way of E.T.). Maybe the strangest touch of all is the revelation that the miracle drug in question is actually a pregnancy hormone (!) The most favorable way to see the movie would be as a Lucy’s dying hallucination as she lies poisoned by the ruptured bag of drugs in her intestine; it would justify a lot of the film’s illogic, and her dopey gnostic omniscience would then appear to be a sly satire on delusions of “consciousness expansion” and chemical enlightenment. Unfortunately, the only serious justification for that reading I can come up with is the fact that Lucy‘s speculations are too ridiculous to be taken seriously on their face.
Around here, we last noted Luc Besson working on The Extraordinary Adventures ofAdèle Blanc-Sec, a homemade French fantasy with a wealth of imagination undermined by a dime store CGI pterodactyl. The bi-continental auteur, who splits time between Gallic and Hollywood movies, follows up a great fantasy script with laughable effects with a laughable script featuring terrific effects. It’s almost as if he’s deliberately trying to protect stereotypes—American movies are big, dumb, and spectacular, while continental movies are smart but underfunded. C’est la vie, I guess.
PLOT: An alien in the form of a beautiful woman skulks around Glasgow in a white van hunting for single men, whom she collects for some unknown but supposedly nefarious purpose. Eventually she becomes confused by her own temporary humanity, and her physical body starts to shut down.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With an acute vision and a puzzling but highly rewarding plot, Under the Skin is easily among the best of 2014, and may well turn out to be the weirdest. The action moves slowly, but is filled with wonderfully bizarre imagery and powerful space-y scoundscapes. Its storytelling is inventive, and nothing is obvious.
COMMENTS: Under the Skin opens with abstract images of space and birth, with the sounds of a woman learning to talk played over the ambient score. An unnamed biker pulls a dead woman into a van, in which a naked Scarlett Johansson takes on her appearance, and her clothing. The next day, she begins her unexplained quest for bodies, driving around and innocently asking for directions while slyly prying into her prey’s background. If they have girlfriends or family, or are on their way to meet friends, she leaves, but if she determines them to be alone and single, she invites them back to her weird abandoned-looking house. Entranced by her beauty, they follow her blindly until they are absorbed into the floor, sinking into black goo. When she comes upon a disfigured young man (Adam Pearson), she falters in her single-minded mission, and begins to look for human experiences, though she is generally unable to understand them.
Adamantly maintaining a “show, don’t tell” attitude, Jonathan Glazer teases his audience with nibbles of information, encouraging us to assemble the puzzle pieces ourselves. This type of storytelling forces us to carefully consider every image presented, questioning characters’ unstated motives and giving a close reading to each scene. The movie is almost palpably quiet, relying little on dialogue and offering a mix of natural background noise and unearthly music, leaving a lot of room for inner thought to fill in the stillness. We must connect how the silent biker is related to Scarlett Johansson’s character, what purpose the abducted men serve, what prompts the protagonist to abandon her hunt, and why she seems to be struggling with her alien body. All of this information is made available to us, if we pay attention. Every shot is precise and deliberate, with many scenes carefully constructed through the use of hidden cameras—so many of the men interacting with Johansson are at first unaware that they are in a movie. There is an intriguing combination of gritty, rainy urban areas, dark but lush forests, and weird alien spaces, plus the juxtaposition of hidden-camera verism and sci-fi unreality. It is at once unsettling, confusing, exciting, and utterly compelling.
This is, for the most part, understated weirdness. Glazer’s non-expository, matter-of-fact style belies how inventive the film’s approach really is. He reveals an alien’s view of our world, and often makes humanity as strange to his audience as it is to his protagonist. The men’s thickly-accented, slang-ridden speech is often confusing (to this American viewer, that is), and common human rituals are made to appear odd. Why do we wear make-up? Or eat chocolate cake? Or have sex? An extended sequence shows a family spending time on a rocky beach, but the parents leave their toddler on the shore as they swim out to save their drowning dog. The protagonist watches this dramatic scene from afar, a nonpartisan observer, not so much uncaring as she is disengaged, never moved to help or hinder because their plight just isn’t related to her. Even the considerable nudity is approached with a sense of detachment, and made to be completely nonsexual despite the context. Though her origins are never actually mentioned, there is no doubt she is an alien creature, a hunter given human form but never made to understand the person she inhabits. The sick joke is that while visually she embodies the human equivalent of prey—female, beautiful, small, alone—inwardly she is a powerful predator. Under the Skin is a strange and dark thriller that manages to wryly comment on gender stereotyping and (straight) sexual relations without actually delivering any kind of message. As a film, as a story, as a work of art, it simply is.
PLOT: Still wounded by his divorce, professional letter writer Theodore Twombly retreats from human relationships into a lonely life of videogames, gossip websites, and anonymous phone sex. However, his world changes after he upgrades to “the first artificially intelligent operating system,” a sentient program named Samantha that he initially treats with suspicion but soon accepts as a confidant, then a lover. When Twombly and Samantha becomes more intimate, though, her insatiable curiosity about the world strains their bond and threatens to recreate the heartbreak that Twombly experienced once before.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While Twombly and Samantha’s pairing is weird, Jonze’s story glosses over the odder aspects of the couple to concentrate on the universal qualities of the affair. The early introduction of phone sex normalizes the sensuous but purely vocal encounter between man and program that begins their romance, and the casual acceptance of their relationship by others further overlooks uncomfortable questions that another film might dwell upon. Instead, Jonze uses the scenario to fancifully illustrate the needs, passions, and pains felt by anyone who falls in love, even a woman who exists within a digital cloud.
COMMENTS: One of Her’s most endearing moments occurs after Twombly and Samantha’s first sexual encounter, when he awkwardly tells his OS that he isn’t interested in a serious relationship. It’s strange to see a morning after scene play out between a man and his computer, and yet that strangeness is absent from the dialogue as Johannson responds with the same charming annoyance and veiled attraction she’d provide in any romantic comedy. On the surface Samantha is defined by her nonphysical nature, but the warmth of Johannson’s performance shows the character’s emotions are not constrained by the lack of a body, that she feels with as much range and depth as any person. Rather than asking if computer programs could ever feel love, as other sci-fi films have, love is not merely possible but inevitable for Samantha. In Her, love is a fundamental part of intelligent life, and so anyone worthy of being called alive, whether human or artificial, naturally must be able to love.
At the same time, Her envisions an emotionally barren future where media technology isolates people from each other, eroding the personal connections they need to thrive. Twombly embodies that isolation as he shuffles from work to home with his eyes glued to one high-tech device or another, engaging others in only the most superficial ways. However, Phoenix’s awkward, self-enclosing performance also suggests someone not just glued to technology but also afraid of emotions, even as his sensitive letters hint at a deeply empathetic soul. Like Samantha, Twombly has a natural ability to love, but unlike his newborn OS he is burdened by past romantic failures and the fear of seeing them repeated, which discourages him from pursuing love at all. That fear pushes Twombly into a stupefying routine of media consumption that keeps other people, and the emotional risks attached to them, safely at bay. Whereas Samantha’s urge to love gives her life, Twombly’s reluctance to love leads him to numbly, thoughtlessly live out his days in front of machines, depriving him of a real life.
Given Twombly’s attachment to machines, it’s fitting that the person who finally reaches him is herself part of a machine. The chemistry between the characters is palpable despite Samantha’s invisibility, not solely because of Johannson’s strong voice work but also because of Phoenix’s total commitment to the conceit. In one scene Twombly shuts his eyes and lets Samantha guide him through a busy carnival, and as he follows her voice he moves so eagerly and joyfully that she could be leading him by the hand. Conversely, when Samantha disappears at various points in the film, Twombly’s solitude exceeds that of a man simply standing by himself. In Phoenix’s face we see a wordless grief through which Samantha’s absence is apparent, and through that sense of absence the invisible character takes shape.
Twombly is shaped by the relationship too as he ends his solitude and begins to let other people connect with him again. By the end, Twombly has realized that the ability to form those connections is itself a marvelous thing, regardless of whether or not they end in heartbreak. Samantha herself is not a perfect mate and Twombly’s relationship with her never seems sustainable, but the film treasures their bond no matter how absurd and fleeting it may be. In a world where people can rely on technology to smooth out the complications in their lives, Her argues that something as complicated and ephemeral as love has a place in our lives too, that love is in fact still what makes life worth living.