UNDER THE SKIN (2014)

7.5 out of 10

Release Date: 14th March 2014

Director: Jonathan Glazer (Birth / Sexy Beast)

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Michael Moreland, Scott Dymond, Joe Szula, Krystof Hadek and Paul Brannigan

Writer: Walter Campbell / Michel Faber

Trailer: UNDER THE SKIN

under-the-skin-poster.jpg

Why do visionary film directors (especially when they’re making science fiction films) feel that they can get away with abandoning narrative halfway through? I know we’re meant to just be swept away by the immensity of the vastness of the big black yonder and all its dazzling wonders, but Roeg, Kubrick and now Jonathan Glazer could all have done with a pedantic script editor or bossy producer to tell them to have another go at the second halves of their (admittedly massively impressive) Official Visionary Masterpieces™ THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and now UNDER THE SKIN.

UNDER THE SKIN tells the tale of an extraterrestrial (played by Scarlett Johansson) who goes to Scotland, adopts the guise of a young woman, then finds food (in human form) before getting into a spot of bother. It’s a bit like ET: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL but without ET, Elliott or anyone from the government, and with lots of nudity and Profound Moodiness. So not like ET at all.

The film comes up with a gimmick (which it must be proud of ‘cos it uses it repeatedly) of having Johansson trawling Glasgow in a white A-Team van and picking up men (real men, not poncy actors – except in the bits where they need actors for all the plot stuff) to whom she offers lifts. I think we’re meant to be astonished by this daring vérité approach but it just left me wanting to see the out-takes.

(Actually, how did this work? Johansson was driving a van, seemingly alone, with hidden cameras in the cab of the vehicle; the director and some bodyguards were in the back; she coaxed complete strangers into the van, chatted with them … then what? Pressed a panic button if necessary, or else waited for the director to call ‘cut’ before telling the clueless civilian that he’d just starred opposite a disguised Hollywood A-Lister and will he sign this form to allow the director to use the footage? Did they get paid? Or eaten? The more I think of it the more this sounds like the interesting bit of the film, because to be honest the actual on-screen stuff quickly gets tedious.)

Anyway, the mysterious alien abducts the hapless men, and, if they’re played by proper actors, takes them to a house which is like a TARDIS but more cheaply designed (completely black and with a sinister secret swimming pool), where terrible things happen.

After a while the film dispenses completely with any notion of plot and the alien just wanders moodily around, occasionally abetted by a mysterious motorcyclist until things go horribly, catastrophically awry in a bothy (a Scottish hut for hardy walkers). (This is the second consecutive film I’ve seen (DEMON BABY is the other) featuring significant supernatural activity in a bothy – is this the start of a new trend? We could call it bothy horror.)

It’s an amazing looking film, and in some senses surely unique. The imagery, the atmosphere and the music are oppressively powerful, and it’s that atmosphere that stays with you, as well as individual shots: the eye at the beginning, the white bodies against black obsidian nowhere backgrounds (and vice versa), the occasional slash of red. The director and cinematographer can turn even mundane shots like someone waiting at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere into an arresting image. Mica Levi’s score is excellent, all teeming strings and Ligeti-ish clusters, which adds to the nightmarish tone. The whole thing feels like a very intense labour of love, and that’s something which also undermines it.

I think my problem with the film is that it’s a very Serious Film, utterly humourless, po-faced, demanding to be seen not as a film but as a Statement About Something, the sort of film which is consciously designed to impress festival juries, award-giver-outers and critics, but which doesn’t follow its own instincts. The film-makers never seem to acknowledge any of the absurdities of the situation, and they’re in denial about the film’s real predecessor, SPECIES (this is basically a film about an alien which takes the form of a sexy woman in order to seduce men). And the film also errs in its basic storytelling. The director said somewhere that he saw it as being about immigration (I’m paraphrasing), yet by casting a famously attractive woman in the role, it inevitably becomes more about the treatment of women than the treatment of refugees. Which is possibly just as well, because as a film about refugees it shows that they come over here, disguise themselves, seduce then eat our menfolk, then the film expects us to be sad when the natives say enough is enough. So, as a film about refugees (or any type of immigrant) it’d be a great bit of propaganda for UKIP, the BNP, the Tory right, the Labour heartland voters and Mr Trump. Actually that should appeal to quite a lot of people. As a film about women, it’s probably even worse. Let’s see, the protagonist dolls herself up in order to prey on poor innocent men then dies because someone fails to rape her. (Quite a significant spoiler there – sorry.)

There’s no denying its surface gleam, its dazzling misery and powerful imagery; but if you sit back for even a few seconds and think about what the film’s saying then it seems to come horribly unstuck. Jonathan Glazer has assembled an extraordinary kaleidoscope of scenes, sounds and images, but his storytelling is, at best, muddled, and at worst, hideous. In a way UNDER THE SKIN is a depressingly empty film, a pretentious housing estate sci-fi (not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with housing estate sci-fi) (mind you the current exemplar of the genre is the frankly loony Jean-Claude Van Damme non-starrer UFO so it’s certainly a genre with a long way to go). And, being an empty film, you can let your mind fill it however you want. But turn off your brain and it’s a hauntingly unsettling triumph.

Review by Matt Usher

WHAT HAVE I SEEN THAT ACTOR IN BEFORE?

  • Scarlett Johansson: Captain America 3, The Jungle Book – Origins (voice), Hail Caesar, Avengers Assemble 2, Lucy (2014), Chef, Captain America 2, Her (voice), Don Jon, Hitchcock, Avengers Assemble, We Bought a Zoo, Iron Man 2, He’s Just Not That Into You, The Spirit, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Other Boleyn Girl, The Nanny Diaries, The Prestige, Black Dahlia, Scoop, The Island (2005), Match Point, In Good Company, A Good Woman, The Perfect Score, Girl With The Pearl Earring, Lost In Translation, Eight Legged Freaks, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Ghost World, Home Alone 3, The Horse Whisperer, North
  • Joe Szula: Neds
  • Paul Brannigan: Scottish Mussel, Beyond, Sunshine On Leith, The Angel’s Share

I AM SOLDIER

2.5 out of 10

Release Date: 17th March 2014 (DVD Premiere)

Director: Ronnie Thompson (Tower Block)

Cast: Tom Hughes, George Russo, Alex Reid, Noel Clarke, Josh Myers, Ian Pirie, Lee Charles, Joe Egan and Miranda Raison

Writer: Ronnie Thompson

Trailer: I AM SOLDIER

imagesTo Be Proofread: I Am Soldier is a very incompetent dramatised version of a British Army recruitment video. Think of a British version of Acts of Valour, mix it with those army ads you see at the cinema and add a dash of Brookside you’re about there. Near the end you can also expect to have a side order of a filmed Quasar session too. Hanging it’s beret on the rites of passage hook, even the least seasoned film viewer will know the drill. In fact so slavish to the template is I Am Soldier it lays cliches to waster left right and centre. It wants to be Top Gun but this low budget pretender is less thrilling or informative as watching kids play with action men toys in the back yard.

Ex-Army chef Mickey (TOM HUGHES – 8 MINUTES IDLE) begins the arduous course to become an SAS soldier. On his quest he’s joined by his wing-man (who’s character arc echoes Top Gun’s Goose a little too closely for comfort) JJ (GEORGE RUSSO – TONY) to get into the world’s elite fighting force. Instructors Carter (NOEL CLARKE – STAR TREK 2) and Dawn (ALEX REID – THE DESCENT) make it hard for them but you know deep down that their ‘alright people, really’. Periodically a bank of text will pop up to inform us what the exercise our heroes are embarking on involves. Whether or not they both pass is not up for debate and then the whole film culminates in Mickey completing his first ‘live’ mission and freeze frame declaring I AM SOLDIER in giant, jubilant typeface.

Director Ronnie Thompson co-directed Tower Block with James Nunn (GREEN STREET 3). This is his first solo effort. He’s fared less well than his old partner in crime although Green Street 3 has it’s own crimes to answer for.  Admittedly, Thompson has tried to make an alternative lads film that tries something different form the countless thug movies around. That’s the only positive point that I can muster.  So clunky and obvious is every single beat of the story that you could probably tell me what was going to happen, who was going to fail the course, who was going to die, who was going to get their knickers off etc. It was just too safe and dull too recommend. Tom Hughes may have looked the part but he’s a personality void in this flick. Flashbacks to a skydiving accident don’t really register and seem there as an empty swipe at characterisation. Noel Clarke is OK but has nothing to add. A shame because he looked like he was finally on his way after his minor but important role in Star Trek 2. The film throws away any good will a less discerning viewer may have had with a really poorly staged ambush sequence that stands in for Mickey’s first real mission. If these guys are SAS they don’t look or act like it. The resulting skirmish is just a bunch of badly co-ordinated soldiers shooting randomly at some fat guys in 80s clothing. It has all the involvement of watching a game of Quasar on one of the monitors in the foyer.  I had previously singled out Mercenaries for having the least convincing bunch of soldiers in. At least we know where they got trained now as these guys suck.

2.5 out of 10 – Poorly mounted recruitment film that fails on dramatic and technical levels. It’s a lame rush job. I’ve dunked better soldiers in my breakfast egg. Who Dares Wins? Here, everybody loses.

Review by Joe Pesci II aka Matt Usher below

WHAT HAVE I SEEN THAT ACTOR IN BEFORE?

STARRED UP

10 out of 10

Release Date: 21st March 2014

Director: David Mackenzie (You Instead Perfect Sense / Hallam Foe / The Asylum / Young Adam)

Cast: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendlesohn, Rupert Friend, Sam Spruell, Anthony Welsh, David Ajala, Ashley Chin, Gershwyn Eustache Jr, Sian Breckin, Frederick Schmidt, David Avery, Raphael Sowole and Peter Ferdinando

Writer: Jonathan Asser

Trailer: STARRED UP

STARRED-UP-_quad-posterFINAL-1024x768At long last the UK has a prison drama to be proud of.  Experimental Scots director David Mackenzie out does himself with one of the best films of 2014 (regardless of origin). Much has been made of Jack O’Connell’s (TULIP FEVER) ascension to Hollywood in Unbroken and it’s in this film and ’71 that he’s proven himself to be one of the most exciting actors to have emerged from the UK in a very long time.

Jack O’Connell plays Eric Love, a 19-year oldyoung offender who has been pushed into the prison system earlier because he’s been ‘starred up’. This means he’s a violent and borderline unmanageable case. On the same wing is his lifer father, Neville played by Australian actor Ben Mendlesohn (THE YEAR MY VOICE BROKE) who hasn’t spent much time with him since the boy was 5.  There’s no sentimental reunions to be had, as respected old lag and loose cannon set about establishing boundaries. Nev is encouraged to nurture and educate the boy by top boy on the wing, Spencer (PETER FERDINANDO – HYENA) but Eric finds a respite of sorts through a counsellor, Ol (RUPERT FRIEND – HOMELAND) who offers an alternative.

There are no breakthrough moments or easy answers in Starred Up.  There’s very little chance of rehabilitation for any of the main characters, an shift in the right direction is a victory but it’s a film of degrees. Success is realised in miniscule increments and that’s what’s great about Starred Up. It’s gritty, yet it’s not designer depression, there’s some very really big ideas at play here. It’s still a film though. There’s a score, well light scenes, blocked scenes, steadi-cam, so it’s not one of those cinema-real ordeals. But at this level there’s still very little distance between audience and action. The violence is close and real. Get Hard this isn’t.

Other Britpics like Ghosted, Offender and Screwed weren’t failures by any long chalk but they only succeeded in certain areas. Starred Up is in a higher league. It’s up there with le Prophet for me. Supporting turns from Rupert Friend and independent film stalwarts like Ashley Chin (VICTIM), Anthony Welsh (SECOND COMING) and David Ajala (PAYBACK SEASON) bolster Jack O’Connell‘s steely and fearless central performance. Ben Mendlesohn has been building a pile of strong supporting roles since he left Oz for Hollywood, yet this is one of his all time best. There’s no trace of his Australian accent and his Neville is great as the established jailbird who gets his ordered world turned upside down. There’s a great scene when the penny drops for Eric that Neville’s cellmate is also his lover. Eric’s only experience of homosexuality is via a child abuse incident when he was 10. So the look of discovery and then distaste is telling, it’s a turning point when all the remaining respect for Neville disappears.

All in all, it’s an incredible watch, obviously it’s not an easy watch. Anyone that’s been on lock down in the UK may well single this film out as the one that reflects life on the inside and it ain’t pretty. This further marks Perfect Sense out to be one of the most exciting directors at work in the UK at the moment. Long may he continue to surprise and devastate in equal measure. Please look out for Perfect Sense too, the world’s most unique apocalypse movie. Top marks for the scriptwriter Jonathan Asser too.

10 out of 10 – Bleak, scary and wonderful. See it.

WHAT HAVE I SEEN THAT ACTOR IN BEFORE?

HERETIC

1 out of 10

Release Date: 5th November 2012 (DVD Premiere)

Director: Peter Handford

Cast: Andrew Squires, James Zakeri, Holly Fletcher, Jodie McEnery, Will Fox, Jen Nelson, Michael J Tait

Writer: Peter Handford

Trailer: HERETIC

UnknownHeretic could be one of the dullest supernatural horror films I’ve ever had the displeasure to sit through. In a genre where simply anything could happen, nothing happens, again and again.  A Yorkshire-based Catholic Priest, James (ANDREW SQUIRES) returns to his old village six months after a local girl committed suicide because he failed to help her when she came to him for advice.  He inexplicably finds himself locked up in the busiest haunted house in the history of filmmaking, haunted by his past and the ghosts of the girl and her step-father. Or is this really what’s happening at all? Lord deliver us from shitty British movies!

Well the Heretic of the title spends a lot of the time wrestling weakly with his fate and faith with a procession of friends and acquaintances that seem to be passing by the derelict house he finds himself locked up in overnight including: his fellow priest (JAMES ZAKERI); town tart (HOLLY FLETCHER); pregnant yet devout local girl Mel (JODIE MCENERY) and a Police Detective (WILL FOX). Sadly nobody can act at all. Apparitions appear and  kill the visitors at a tedious pace. Flashbacks seem to contradict proceedings in the house making us look at previous scenes from different angles. Waking dreams set to over complicate the whole film too. The dizzying narrative just infuriates rather than sets up any level of intrigue. It may have been vaguely intriguing if it wasn’t so amateurish. Bad acting, an overwrought and inappropriate score and really bad lighting ruin everything. There’s no tension generated at all and it’s never frightening, or even more importantly interesting.

Heretic fails on every single level and there’s just nothing to recommend beyond a vague impression that there was a reasonable story in here somewhere wrestling to get out. But all the cod-theology, cliches and lack of drive make for a hard watch. Don’t waste your time watching this over long, over cooked, horror bore. The DVD cover is good though.

1 out of 10 – Leaden.  Heredick, more like. It’s wetter than a week in Yorkshire.

WHAT HAVE I SEEN THAT ACTOR IN BEFORE?

Nothing.

THE LAST PASSENGER

5.5 out of 10

Release date: 18th October 2013 (DVD Premiere)

Director: Oomid Nooshin

Cast: Dougray Scott, Kara Tointon, David Schofield, Iddo Goldberg, Joshua Kaynama and Lindsay Duncan

Writer: Oomid Nooshin & Andy Love

Trailer: THE LAST PASSENGER

WHAT HAVE I SEEN THAT ACTOR IN BEFORE?

  • Dougray Scott: London Town, Tiger House, Taken 3, Death Race 3, A Thousand Kisses Deep, My Week With Marilyn, Love’s Kitchen, United, New Town Killers, Hitman, Desperate Housewives (TV), Dark Water, One Last Chance, To Kill a King, Ripley’s Game, Enigma, Mission Impossible 2, Gregory’s Girl 2, This Year’s Love, Ever After, Deep Impact, Another 9.5 Weeks, Twin Town, The Crow Road (TV), Soldier Soldier (TV)
  • Kara Tointon: Let’s Be Evil, Mr Selfridge (TV), Eastenders (TV), Teachers (TV)
  • David Schofield: Da Vinci’s Demons (TV), All Things To All Men, Ghosted F, Burke and HareDevil’s Bridge, The Pirates Of The Caribbean 1 – 3, The Wolfman, Valkyrie, The Musketeer, From Hell, Gladiator (2000), Anna Karenina (1997), An American Werewolf In London
  • Iddo Goldberg: Peaky Blinders (TV), The Tournament, Unmade Beds, Secret Diary Of a Call Girl (TV), Defiance
  • Lindsay Duncan: Gifted (2016), Alice In Wonderland 2, Birdman, Le Week-End, About Time, Alice In Wonderland (2010), Starter For 10, Rome (TV), Under The Tuscan Sun, Mansfield Park (1999), An Ideal Husband, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1996), A Year In Provence (TV), GBH (TV), The Reflecting Skin, Prick Up Your Ears, Kit Curran (TV)

IRONCLAD 2

3.5 out of 10

Release Date: 14th March 2014

Director: Jonathan English (Ironclad)

Cast: Tom Austen, Tom Rhys-Harries, Roxanne McKee, Danny Webb, Rosie Day, David Caves, Twinnie-Lee Moore, Andy Beckwith, Predrag Bjelac with David Rintoul and Michelle Fairley

Writer: Jonathan English & Stephen McDool

Trailer: IRONCLAD 2 

imagesThis unwanted and unnecessary sequel shouldn’t really be associated with the original Ironclad, so tenuous is their link. The only thing the two films share is the same director and writer, Jonathan English. Both films follow the ‘castle under siege’ plot model where all the characters routinely bellow: ‘Hold the WALL!’ / ‘Hold the Gate!’ / ‘To The Keep!’ / ‘I will stay you my lord!’ Like I said regarding the first installment these films are essentially a live action remake of the kids TV show from the early 80s called Clopper Castle, where a bunch of toy knights would just beat the shite out each other for fifteen minutes – the end.

Tom Austen (THE BORGIAS) plays the estranged relative who comes to the imperilled castle’s defence when his family are targeted by some renegade Scottish warriors.  Unknown to his family, he has been ’employed’ by his cousin to bring a ‘Magnificent Seven’ style gang to help him defend the castle.  So lowly is he, he only works for money. The family are made up of a Lord (DAVID RINTOUL – UNRELATED) and Lady (MICHELLE FAIRLEY – GAME OF THRONES), their daughters, Rosie Day (SIXTEEN) and Roxanne McKee (F) and son, Tom Rhys Harries (HUNKY DORY).  Once Tom Austen and his gang turn up there’s an endless battle in which the cast is whittled down to a small number. The End. Just like Clopper Castle.

Ironclad 2 isn’t a complete loss. The action scenes are well accomplished if repetitive and the acting is professional. Old stalwarts like Danny Webb (ALIEN 3) and Andy Beckwith (SNATCH) make a good impression, making slim pickings go an extra few yards.  Every time somebody gets run through with a sword, the same clip of slow motion ribena (ala 300) flies through the air (I swear its an identical clip) and its all accompanied by lots of charging around. There’s a little bit of sex, yet virtually no intrigue as Tom Austen‘s character slow realises his noble calling whilst also getting time to snog his angry cousin (ROXANNE MCKEE). It’s as generic as a carrier bag and because it’s a cheap sequel that has no business taking up space on UK cinema screens, it’s also unwanted. It’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been though. The director, Jonathan English clearly has a passion for these kind of films and the action scenes really work, unfortunately you can’t furnish your film with wooden characters and very, very corny dialogue alone – on the whole, the actors deserved better material than this.

3.5 out of 10 – Competent, yet ordinary sequel that nobody was expecting and nobody wanted. Why was this given a cinema release too when there are so many more worthy films around?

WHAT HAVE I SEEN THAT ACTOR IN BEFORE?

THE BABY JUICE EXPRESS

2.5 out of 10

Release Date:  19th April 2004 (DVD Premiere)

Director: Michael Hurst (Pumpkinhead 4)

Cast: Nick Moran, Lisa Faulkner, Phil Davis, Paterson Joseph, Joe Bugner, Steve Spiers, Julian Clary, Stephen Marcus, Nick Brimble, Cleo Rocos, Badi Uzzaman with Dave Courtney and Samantha Womack

Writer: Nick Moran & Michael Hurst

Trailer: THE BABY JUICE EXPRESS

REVIEW COMING SOON

WHAT HAVE I SEEN THAT ACTOR IN BEFORE?