Not Even Scarlett Johansson Can Inject Life into “Under The Skin”.

The pulchritudinous Scarlett Johansson.

The pul­chri­tudi­nous Scar­lett Johansson.

Under The Skin has divid­ed crit­ics straight down the mid­dle, with some declaim­ing it a mas­ter­piece, and oth­ers tear­ing their hair out. Which is odd. As it’s pants. Nei­ther remote­ly inter­est­ing nor in any way offensive.

It’s per­fect­ly styl­ish, and com­pe­tent­ly shot, as you’d expect from an accom­plished com­mer­cials and music video direc­tor. And Scar­lett Johans­son is as tal­ent­ed as she is allur­ing­ly volup­tuous, so the whole thing is sig­nif­i­cant­ly more engag­ing than it has any right to be. But once again we find our­selves back with Gertrude Stein’s famous com­ment on Cal­i­for­nia; there’s no there, there.

All you get are a num­ber of scenes that a beau­ti­ful alien drifts in and out off that sug­gest any num­ber of pos­si­ble narratives.

Nicole Kidman was similarly wasted in "Birth" ('04).

Nicole Kid­man was sim­i­lar­ly wast­ed in “Birth” (’04).

When you’re mak­ing com­mer­cials or, espe­cial­ly music videos, pre­sent­ing arche­types and sug­gest­ing nar­ra­tives is won­der­ful­ly evoca­tive and end­less­ly appeal­ing, as his video for Radiohead’s Street Spir­it (Fade Out) ably demon­strates here.

But when you’re telling a full sto­ry over 90 min­utes or more, mere­ly sug­gest­ing a num­ber of pos­si­ble nar­ra­tives that involve arche­types drawn with big, bold brush­strokes becomes bor­ing, tedious and even­tu­al­ly irri­tat­ing. As Ben Wheat­ley showed in A Field In Eng­land, reviewed ear­li­er here.

This is Glazer’s third fea­ture, after the dis­ap­point­ing­ly con­ven­tion­al, bog stan­dard mock­ney gang­ster flick Sexy Beast in 2000, and the icy Birth in 2004. As with the lat­ter, Glaz­er once again pens the script. And as Michel Gondry and so many oth­ers have demon­strat­ed, if you want to grad­u­ate from com­mer­cials to fea­ture films, you real­ly have to hook your­self up with a prop­er screen­writer. You need some­one to give a body on which to hang your pret­ty clothes.

So how do you account for some of the stel­lar reviews Under The Skin has got? What are we to make of what Don­ald Clarke, one of, in fact the only film crit­ic worth read­ing in Ire­land, had to say in the Irish Times here?

Godard declaimed here in his 1967 film' "the critic is as close to the artist as the historian is to the man of action". Godard of course began as a critic on the Cahiers du Cinema.

Godard declaimed here in his 1967 film’ “the crit­ic is as close to the artist as the his­to­ri­an is to the man of action”. Godard of course began as a crit­ic on the Cahiers du Cin­ema.

Well, film crit­ics watch films under very spe­cif­ic cir­cum­stances. They go to at least 3 or 4 screen­ings a week, for free obvi­ous­ly, and in the process they inevitably become pal­ly with the dis­trib­u­tors, and often the actors and film mak­ers themselves.

So on the one hand they are much more blasé about the films they see, and on the oth­er they try to find some­thing nice to say about them. The few reli­able film crit­ics, and Clarke is one, spend a great deal of time and effort guard­ing against this. But I respect­ful­ly sug­gest  he’ll be a tad embar­rassed about this review in years to come. If at all he ever thinks about it.

For most peo­ple, watch­ing a film involves a rit­u­al and a plea­sur­able amount of time and effort. Whether that means get­ting up and going out to the cin­e­ma, get­ting your hands on a dvd or going to the trou­ble of down­load­ing it. That invest­ment of time and effort deserves to be reward­ed. And any­one that invests 3 or 4 hours of their life in get­ting to and then watch­ing Under The Skin is going to be thor­ough­ly irri­tat­ed. And some­what surprised.

You can see the trail­er for Under The Skin here.

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Ben Wheatley’s film “A Field In England” a Triumph of Marketing over Content.

Ben Whealey's A Field In England.

Ben Wheat­ley’s A Field In England.

Ben Wheatley’s new film A Field In Eng­land was released simul­ta­ne­ous­ly in cin­e­mas, on DVD, on the Inter­net and on tele­vi­sion all at the begin­ning of July. And the reviews that fol­lowed were almost unan­i­mous­ly stel­lar, as crit­ics were swept along by this clever piece of marketing.

Which is baf­fling, as it’s all over the place. Only Cather­ine Shoard raised a lone­ly voice of protest in her Observ­er review here.

There’s no sto­ry. Or at least not a whole one. What you have instead or four or five ideas for a sto­ry. Let’s take a bunch of guys and iso­late them in one loca­tion for an entire film. And it’s in the mid­dle of the Eng­lish Civ­il War, so some of them are on one side, and some are from the other.

But instead of fol­low­ing them in the midst of the action, let’s spend a day with them when they’ve noth­ing to do! Except hunt for buried trea­sure. Which they’re look­ing for using divination.

Plus there’s the whole Lord of the Flies thing, as they each revert to Hobb­sian brutes removed as they are from polite soci­ety. And occa­sion­al Pin­teresque, sub-Beck­et­t­ian pseu­do exis­ten­tial mus­ings along the lines that everything-will-be-all-right-once-we-get-to-the-Ale-House.

No women to distract from the "story".

No pesky women, beau­ti­ful or oth­er­wise, to dis­tract from the “sto­ry”.

Which is fine if all you’re doing is mak­ing ads. With bare­ly a minute to play with, all you can ever do is sug­gest a sto­ry, so you nev­er have to fol­low any of your ideas through. When you’re mak­ing a fea­ture film, you have to choose just one sto­ry and actu­al­ly tell it.

But as with his pre­vi­ous film The Kill List, Wheat­ley doesn’t seem to have the where­with­al to pur­sue a sto­ry through its begin­ning, mid­dle and end. Instead he resorts to hype, and slips back in to adver­tis­ing mode. Which was where he used to work before he decid­ed to try his hand at features.

You can see A Field In Eng­land’s trail­er here.

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