Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Under the Skin

Part of the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series at The Film Experience.

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Where are we? Who are we? Why are we? These are questions that Under the Skin asks, and questions that I asked as the film began, circles of light accompanied by Mica Levi’s perpetually unnerving score. This image resembles a stage in the movement of the BFI logo, but these images hang in transition, never shifting into anything recognisable. Jonathan Glazer doesn’t let you settle and then shock you; he immediately disorientates the audience, making it clear that this film exists on a plain unlike any other you might know.

20140720-210758-76078918.jpgStraight away, we experience the impotence of the female gender within society; a dead body, hidden off road, is retrieved and slung into the back of a van, which, impossibly, contains a vast, blank nothingness. Glazer casts these moments in the model of a computer programme, that archaically familiar space that exists into infinity, precisely because it doesn’t really exist at all. This setting also taps into the stereotypical gender imbalance of the computer gaming world. Scarlett Johansson is the scantily-clad female figure, and what we assume to be a nameless prostitute has been killed; both things are tropes of misogynist gaming culture.

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Scarlett doesn’t say a lot in the film. Her English accent is almost too good; the cut-glass nature of it is another perfect tool for disorientation, although you wonder why the alien would not have learnt their speech patterns from those in the local area. Still, it makes her more exotic to the passing men she picks up, an extra layer of glamour buried inside this giant van. Glazer uses her star image and her sexuality to great effect, but make no mistake; this is a great performance. When she gets the close-ups, she doesn’t oversell them; the looks are still alien, still peculiar, but they are also alien to herself. Who is she? The first image here, which is proceeded by the face shifting out of shadow, is an obvious but striking visual metaphor; the second (the best shot) is more bewitching, somehow, the black wig dominating the frame, Glazer iconographising his own film before its finishes. It can withstand the weight.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Part of the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series at The Film Experience.

Eternal Sunshine

Why did I choose this as the ‘best’ shot from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?

Because it captures the warmth and sadness and isolation of their love affair; because the colours Ellen Kuras shows here are earthy yet glowing, like the entire movie; because Kate Winslet; because it feels like a breath suspended.

The best of men

Team Experience took a month off, but we’re back this month with the latest group poll. This time, we ranked our top ten from the enormous selection of performances that lost the Oscar Best Actor category. Given that I – and probably most of Team Experience – have always favoured actresses when watching my films, I expected this to be easy compared to the comparable Actress poll we conducted earlier in the year, but no! I surprised myself with how many of the performances I’d seen and wanted to consider, and narrowing it down to ten was maybe the most difficult polling decision yet. As such, my final ten is embarrassment of riches, with every performance being basically faultless.

Brando

Six of my choices made the overall top ten (although, as is oddly frequent, there was a tie in tenth place, meaning it’s technically a top eleven), which is a pretty good hit rate. Those lucky men were:

- Al Pacino, Dog Day Afternoon – I find it almost depressing to think of how great Pacino used to be. For me, this is his peak: sweaty, anxious, vulnerable, desperate, but never pathetic. He’s spellbinding to watch.
- Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot – Happily, three of this group are comedic performances!
Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain – By over twenty years, the most recent performance on the list. Hoffman was by no means bad, but I still can’t fathom how this exquisite turn lost.
Dustin Hoffman, Tootsie – Nathaniel’s write-up of this performance says more than I ever could. Read.

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Peter Sellers, Dr. Strangelove – I contributed the write-up over at TFE, as he was third on my ballot. As I marvel over there, rarely has an actor shown how dexterous their approach to performance can be.
Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire – Magnetic, terrifying, riveting, iconic.

My other choices were:

- Paul Newman, Hud – When I finally started digging into Newman’s back catalogue a few years ago, I instantly understood. There’s such detail and pain behind that beauty.
Jack Nicholson, Chinatown – For me, his finest hour.
James Cagney, Love Me or Leave Me – He won for a considerably spryer performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy, but Cagney’s best was in this wrenching melodrama opposite a never-better Doris Day; he’s monstrous and weak at once, and uncompromisingly brutal.

And finally, my unquestionable number one, who I was appalled not to see on the overall top ten, given that his screen partner won the Actress poll:

A Star is Born

James Mason, A Star is Born

I’m not sure I even dare to try and describe the painful depths this performance goes to. It haunts me.

Be sure to visit The Film Experience to see the Team’s top ten and read the superb write-ups from the contributors.

Horrifically good lists

During October, the monthly Team Experience poll at The Film Experience doubled up, quizzing contributors on their top ten horror films both pre- and post-The Exorcist – a watershed for horror cinema, in its status as the first film in the genre to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Plus, it’s almost forty years old!

I was asked to write about The Birds for the first list – here is my submitted top ten, followed by that short piece. 1973 was quite the year for horror, eh?

10. The Innocents (1961)
09. Freaks (1932)
08. Peeping Tom (1960)
07. Don’t Look Now (1973)
06. The Birds (1963)
05. Les Diaboliques (1955)
04. The Wicker Man (1973)
03. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
02. Psycho (1961)
01. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Watching The Birds while I work…

A photo posted by David Upton (@randomfurlong) on

What really makes The Birds terrifying are the ideas, rather than the action. The omnipresence and essential inanity of the creatures makes them a perfect, unbeatable, mysterious villain – are they even a villain at all? Hitchcock teases his audience by presenting several possible explanations, both scientific and allegorical, for the attacks, all the while knowing he never has to give an answer. He simply has to present the creatures as an incessant, terrifying force. As Melanie and Mitch walk back up to the school, they quietly pass the birds perching on the climbing frame, and soft, taunting calls echo like daggers. Whether a screech or a whoosh, a peck or a slash, the cacophony of sounds become simply nightmarish, with Hitchcock even muting the pain and dialogue of the family shut up inside the house as the birds attack from every side. Straightforward and elegant in both title and execution, The Birds provokes the idea that something we see everyday can unexpectedly become unfamiliar and horrifying.

Films on the overall list that I didn’t vote for were Vampyr, Eyes Without A Face (neither of which I’ve seen), Cat People (solid enough, but I prefer Tourneur’s straight noir work), The Haunting (which I just didn’t find frightening or well-made), and Nosferatu (just outside my ten).

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Bug
Photo © Lions Gate Films

I wasn’t asked to write on anything in the post- poll, but here is my ballot:

10. Thirst (2009)
09. Carrie (1976)
08. The Shining (1980)
07. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
06. Scream (1996)
05. Alien (1979)
04. Halloween (1978)
03. INLAND EMPIRE (2006)
02. [Rec] (2007)
01. Bug (2006)

The final two there are easily the most terrifying things I’ve seen in the past ten years, and definitely my recommendations if you’re looking for a scare you might not have seen yet. I have to add that somehow I plum forgot about The Descent when voting; it would bump Scream and everything below down, I think. Luckily, the other voters made up for my error by voting it into the overall list. Also making it were The Others (chilling), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (never a particular favourite), and The Silence of the Lambs (which I haven’t seen in years).

I’ll be watching a couple of these tonight, so it’s inevitably going to be a terrifying night. Happy Hallowe’en!

Local festivities: the LFF, again

In a very last-minute arrangement, I ended up grabbing myself a press pass for the London Film Festival this year, covering the event for Nathaniel at The Film Experience as I have done for the past several years. Due to my personal life, and then an unfortunate bout of illness during the final week, my attendance and coverage wasn’t nearly as dogged as previous years, but I still caught some interesting stuff.ALL_IS_LOST-001

Since Kanye West just brought The Truman Show and its climatic sailing sequence into public parlance again, it’s perfectly appropriate for me to refer to All is Lost as an enlarged version of that scene. The manipulator of the heavens here is not a flatcapped Ed Harris, but writer-director J. C. Chandor, fleeing from the immensely talkative boardroom of Margin Call to the vast sea of a practically wordless one-man-show. ‘Our Man’ (as the credits call him) is Robert Redford, in an Oscar-buzzed performance that is certainly his most remarkable in many years. Not only for the physical commitment – the rough winds of the sea buffet the sailor every which way – but for the restraint with which he crafts a stolid and complex man who barely says a word.

- All is Lost, reviewed Saturday 5 October

Kill Your DarlingsKrokidas does his best to keep the rhythms of the film fresh and interesting, but many of his unique approaches to the psychological fancies of the narrative feel too effortful. Though it’s a vibrant film experience, it doesn’t quite come across without actors that can lend the techniques the life they demand.

Kill Your Darlings, reviewed Thursday 17 October

I reviewed four of the British films showing at the festival in a capsule piece; Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition is a film that’s still bothering me, but in a good way, as it’s architecture has seemingly obsessed me as it does the central character. The BFI’s restoration of The Epic of Everest is a marvel, recovering a quite astonishing feat of filmmaking – and Simon Fisher Turner’s score is a spellbinding accompaniment. Definitely one to catch if you can find it on a big screen, even if we’ve all missed the chance to see the music performed live. (They don’t do that for press screenings, surprisingly enough.)

AdoreI also snuck in a few reviews for So So Gay, though I sadly missed the epic lesbian drama Blue is the Warmest Color, which it would’ve been nice to get in the opinion ring for. For some reason, the PR for Adore was keen to get the site involved, even though the only LGBT action is when the women laugh off the idea that they’re “lezzos”. No, sadly Xavier Samuel and James Frecheville don’t even kiss. I know, right?

Anyway, the other reviews were more relevant, probably because I decided on what they’d be myself. See You Next Tuesday is inevitably nicer than the title suggests; Floating Skyscrapers is an earthy gem, and when it’s hot, it’s hot; and Tom at the Farm is my least favourite Xavier Dolan film to-date, but it’s still a strong effort and a promising progression in his approach. Oli Dowdeswell also did a couple of reviews at the festival; I’m eager to see Stranger by the Lake, which I’ll be reviewing for the theatrical release in March next year, but I’m not too disappointed by the fact that I probably won’t get the opportunity to see Eastern Boys.

The festival finished with the world premiere of Disney’s celebration of part of its own history, as Walt and Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers face-off in Saving Mr. Banks; I was quite excited to be one of the first in the world to review the film, I won’t lie. It’s a sugary sort of thing, but I enjoyed it. I would have said it’s Tom Hanks best work in years, but I saw Captain Phillips a couple of days prior.SAVING MR. BANKS

Just as Thompson is wonderfully poised and dismissive, doing an expert Hollywood job of dismantling Travers’ guarded barbs as her memories seep in and soften her up, Hanks might be even better as Disney. He uses his movie star charisma to portray Walt’s immense popularity, but does so without sacrificing the shades of manipulation to his dealings with Travers. (And when he smiles, he looks eerily like Mickey Mouse. Well, he is family.)

That’s a wrap on that, and now I’m free from the shackles of the office job and looking for gainful employment in a field I actually want to work in, maybe I’ll have more time for this old-new blog. No promises, I don’t want to break any hearts.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Mary Poppins

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My favourite shot in Mary Poppins – despite the painterly beauty of London in the rooftop scenes – is this one. Mary, at the insistence of the children, uses her special tape measure on herself, and is satisfied at the result: “Mary Poppins; practically perfect in every way”. The way Julie Andrews holds this pose for just a few seconds too long is our first hint that maybe Mary isn’t as ethereally flawless as she’d have us believe; there’s a bit of smugness in this gaze, a dogmatic belief in her own purity that ironically dilutes itself with its forcefulness.

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Double Indemnity

Part of the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series at The Film Experience.

I’ve always considered Double Indemnity a rather ugly film. And I don’t mean that in terms of the narrative and thematic content, though the scheming and distrust and manipulation and murder certainly is rather ugly. I mean in terms of the features of the film itself – something about the combination of the dark, non-descript apartment, Fred MacMurray’s bland face and that iconic but horrific wig Barbara Stanwyck has on adds up to a film that seems determined to be physically repulsive. I wouldn’t be surprised if Billy Wilder was doing this on purpose, placing the maliciousness of the crime amongst the bland milieu of MacMurray’s insurance salesroom and a Los Angelean house that Phyllis doesn’t belong in – even if she does walk around in it like a prowling feline.

That said, Double Indemnity naturally features the same sort of chiaroscuro-esque film noir lighting of the genre’s 1940s heyday, and it makes for some glowing compositions. The sequence late in the film where MacMurray and Stanwyck have their final showdown of barbs and gunshots is probably the apex for this effect, and my favourite shot comes where a flash of light cracks through the calm dark, a pause, a little consideration. Phyllis readies a cigarette, and hearing Walter approaching gives her the tiniest pause, before she coolly continues and the flame of her match illuminates her face and the caustic, measured expression upon it.

Double Indemnity