Friday, 21 March 2014

Filmdog Weekly #9 (Under the Skin, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World)

Welcome again to Filmdog Weekly. In this edition we're taking a look at Jonathan Glazer's eerie science-fiction flick Under the Skin and reviewing Peter Weir's 2003 classic Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which played at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on Thursday...

Under the Skin (Greenwich Picturehouse)
'Hopefully it won't be under your radar...'

Scratchy violins picking short, stabbing notes out of the air. A human voice in the distance practising vowels. Black tar-like fluids rising up from a sheer white background. Cylindrical objects floating towards each other. 

Yes, this is the opening scene of Under the Skin and it's beautifully abstract and alien, setting the tone for the next 108 minutes of this wonderfully Kubrickian sci-fi.

Based on Michel Faber's 2000 novel, the film follows a nameless alien, inhabiting the body of a young, beautiful woman (Scarlett Johansson) as she drives around Glasgow and the west coast of Scotland looking for suitable young men to seduce.

After picking up young suitors in her van, she drives them back to her flat and it's only once they're inside that we begin to understand the terrifying purpose behind her predatory man-hunt.

We never truly find out the reasons behind this need for men, though it's alluded to in one horrifying scene and anyone who's read the book beforehand will know exactly why. Luckily I was unaware of the existence of the novel and I think this helped add to the tension. It's simultaneously erotic and terrifying as you watch Scarlett lead these young men through the door of her squalid flat into a pitch black, other-worldly landscape, clothes teasingly dropping to floor, and you wonder what will happen to these unfortunate guys walking towards their doom in full state of arousal.

The film benefits tremendously from having a Hollywood star playing the lead role and Scarlett Johansson is mesmerising in this. The stark contrast of seeing someone more accustomed to the red carpets of Los Angeles now driving through urban Glasgow, slowly navigating through the throng of Celtic supporters, allows the audience to tap into that foreignness, literally a world away from her comfort zone. Her English accent only serves to make her more convincing too, giving us the real sense that she's an impostor.

It's a very intelligent sci-fi film and I think it's probably one of the best I've seen. There are no lasers or space ships and only at the very end do we get a glimpse into the true nature of the aliens. She is seemingly the only female but there are others in the form of mute, obedient men who whizz around the country on motorcycles cleaning up her dirty work. There is an insect-style relationship it seems, like ants or bees with a solitary queen and an army of male soldiers to attend to her.

Like any foreigner living among a different culture for an extended amount of time, she begins to develop an understanding of the people and an emotional bond. There's a slow transformation from the woman we see at the beginning of the film, from a calculated and emotionless being intent on carrying out her duty, to a fragile and more sympathetic character. 

For most of the film she watches people going about their everyday lives and several scenes show the subtle shift in her thinking pattern. At first she focuses on single men, identifying suitable candidates, but then later on she turns her attention to women, as she starts to feel more at home in the skin she's in. Then she begins to understand the decency and kindness that humans can have for each other. One montage shows a dad giving his child a piggy-back and a young girl on a bench moving her legs out of the way for an elderly woman to pass by; small little acts of everyday kindness that give away exactly what it is to be human and this has a lasting effect on our alien protagonist.

The final third of the film shows a quiet rebellion against her own kind in favour of her adopted species and the end of the film is actually quite heartbreaking as she finds out that humans are also capable of evil as well as kindness. Unlike most movie-aliens, this species has a fragility about it. They don't possess super-human strength and the only supernatural ability seems to be for hypnosis and a little telepathy.

Under the Skin is beautiful, tense, erotic and very intelligent. Hopefully it won't slip under your radar. Go and see it.

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Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Royal Naval Museum)
'There's not a moment to lose...'

On Thursday night I went to the Royal Naval Museum by Greenwich Park for a viewing of one of my favourite films. Before the film we were given a 20 minute talk around the true events behind the film and were lucky enough to handle a few historical artifacts, the most notable of which was the signal log from the USS Chesapeake , captured by the HMS Shannon in an 11-minute action in the battle of Boston Bay. The signal book is a key piece of coding for the entire US fleet and it was very heavy, weighted with lead shot so that it can be tossed overboard in the event of capture, however in this case it was taken by the Shannon's Captain Philip Broke. We also managed to look at Broke's diary and the ship's log. Very interesting stuff if you like naval history.

The film itself is based around a real-life action, only with the US frigate replaced by the French Acheron to give it a more Napoleonic feel. It's a mash-up of several book by Patrick O'Brian (very fine reading they are too) and follows Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin on their quest aboard HMS Surprise to intercept the Acheron, sink her or take her as a prize.

It's a brilliant chase, a cat and mouse hunt across the South Atlantic and South Pacific oceans, giving an accurate depiction of life on board a man of war during the Napoleonic battles. Russell Crowe gives a very heroic portrayal of 'Lucky Jack', not quite so buffoonish as he is in the books but excellent all the same. Paul Bettany is also outstanding as Maturin, surgeon and spy, the latter of which is only hinted at in the film.

I could spend a lot more time writing about this film but it's one you really must see for yourself. If you haven't already done so...there's not a moment to lose!

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