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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Spike Jonze’s “Her”, a Classic New Hollywood Film.

Spike Jonze's "Her".

Spike Jonze’s “Her”.

Her, the new film from Spike Jonze stars Joaquin Phoenix, Scar­lett Johans­son, Amy Adams and Olivia Wilde, with music by the Arcade Fire. In oth­er words, it’s indie royalty.

Phoenix plays a cre­ative type in an office job who falls in love with his computer’s Oper­at­ing Sys­tem, voiced by Johans­son, in a soon to be realised future Los Ange­les. Adams is his best friend, and Wilde the skin and bones human that he tries to have a phys­i­cal fling with.

Scarlett Johansson in Venice.

Scar­lett Johans­son in Venice.

It’s a charm­ing, slight­ly off­beat and vis­i­bly clever rom com that’s thor­ough­ly enjoy­able and, not with­stand­ing a lack­lus­tre end­ing, won­der­ful­ly engag­ing. It’s gen­uine­ly roman­tic and often fun­ny. And it real­ly is great fun. But it’s wafer thin. You’ll need to give your brain the evening off and bid it engage elsewhere.

Jonze  direct­ed Being John Malkovich (’99) and Adap­ta­tion (’02), both of which were script­ed by Char­lie Kauf­man, and this is his first orig­i­nal script after his ver­sion of Where The Wild Things Are from 2009.

Watch­ing Her, you get that same sense of gen­tle dis­ap­point­ment after the ini­tial thrill that you got after watch­ing his pre­vi­ous films, those of Wes Ander­son and the bet­ter films of Sofia Cop­po­la, to whom Jonze was briefly married.

Joaquin Phoenix an Olivia Wilde in "Her".

Joaquin Phoenix an Olivia Wilde in “Her”.

You leave the cin­e­ma with a smile on your face. But the fur­ther you walk, the less there was to think about. And it’s hard not to think of Gertrude Stein’s famous com­ment on California,

There’s no there, there.

It’s like watch­ing a bril­liant fire­work dis­play. You’re daz­zled by the flash­es of light that illu­mi­nate the dark­ness. But you’re imme­di­ate­ly left star­ring into the blank black­ness won­der­ing what it was that you’d seen up there, and feel­ing slight­ly ashamed at being so eas­i­ly impressed by some­thing of so lit­tle substance.

Her is great fun. But that’s all it is.

You can see the trail­er here.

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