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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