Black Widow

December 12, 2014

Under the Skin

Under the Skin – Alien
Sometimes I simply find it difficult to preface a film. So without further ado I’ll jump right into it. “Under the Skin” is one of those films that defies preconceptions and to be honest with you, just might be one of those films that will surprise many, if said many are willing to give it a chance and really try to understand an alien concept; a woman who is willing to sleep with a man from Scotland…..(I kid, I kid).
“Skin” is the story of a mysterious woman, played seductively and as sultry as ever by Scarlett Johansson. She drives a van, lures men into said van, and leads them to their doom. She is followed by a duo of mysterious motorcyclists who seem to clean up whatever mess she leaves behind. Things start to spin a little out of control after one of her encounters has her letting loose one of her quarries and going on the run. This is where they say, “the plot thickens.”
To go any further would be to do a disservice to the rest of the film, and going cold into “Skin” is one of the best things that you could do for this film. Director Jonathan Glazer, best known for “Sexy Beast” combines the best of art house cinema with trippy effects to create an engrossing, thinking-persons, science fiction weird-fest. What also stands out is the excellent score by Mica Levy, which plays like combination of Radiohead, Aphex Twin, and Wendy Carlos.

What I think has been missing from sci-fi flicks for a while is the notion that a setting needs to actually be alien, or cosmic, in order to make it a real sci-fi film. What I think is the most underrated aspect of “Skin” is the fact that the film takes place in Scotland. Let’s be honest, how much do we all really know about that land of Scotland outside of “Highlander” and Sean Connery. The landscapes and dialect almost become a character in and of itself and add a wrinkle to the story you wouldn’t expect.

Now the elephant in the room; the performance of Johansson, and I’m not just talking about her acting ability. One of the things that got a lot of attention leading up to the release of this film was the fact that Johannson shed all of her clothes for the role. While it’s nothing new for well-known actresses to ditch the clothes and show the goods, it’s a tad more newsworthy considering we are talking about an actress known for playing Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, her disrobing shouldn’t take away from her simple, yet effective performance. Most of her acting isn’t done through dialogue, but rather her movements and body language, and I might go as far as saying this is her best performance to date.

Another misconception is that “Skin” is simply a “Species” rip-off with stronger feminist undertones. Yes, on paper the fact that you have a mysterious women seeking men out and later dispatching them is pretty “Species”-like, but the comparisons can stop there. “Skin” features a very strong female character whose intentions aren’t truly discovered until close to the start of the third act, and even at that point we see that character’s intentions shift after a chance encounter with a specific character she picks up and is ready to dispatch. However, while I do enjoy the power that Johansson wields over her quarry, the third act flips the script and changes who may or may not be in control. I know some of this sounds cryptic, and that is the point. My intention is to entice you to watch a film that is certainly worthy of your attention and is an interesting take on male/female relations and interactions.

So, with that being said; should you see “Under the Skin?” See above please, of course you should. It’s one of the most original sci-fi films in quite a while, with a daring performance by Scarlett Johansson and some of the most “alien” cinematography of 2014. Sure we’ve gone to the far-reaches of the Marvel Universe, Earth under the rule of talking Apes, and even traveled back into Biblical-times on an ark, but the way Glazer created a practically alien world out of something that exists on Earth hasn’t been done since Peter Jackson created Middle-Earth with the help of New Zealand.

Fun Fact: In 1979, Robert Taylor claimed to have been nearly abducted by aliens in Dechmont Law in Livington, West Lothian, Scotland in what has been called the Dechmont Law Encounter.

April 5, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

STAKES

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the first post-Avengers Marvel movie to give me and most other Marvel fans the one thing we’ve wanted.  The one thing Iron Man 3 squandered away for a punchline.  The one thing Thor: The Dark World got close to delivering but got handcuffed by Thor’s…well…immortality.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier finally gave me STAKES.  It finally provides the feeling of true peril and importance to the grand scheme of this carefully constructed Marvel cinematic universe.  People not only get hurt in this film, they get hurt bad.  They bleed, they suffer, they die.  And throughout the chaos, you finally get the sense that important sh%* is on the line.  AND THAT’S EXCLUDING THE WINTER SOLDIER PLOTLINE!

I’ve been on media blackout for this followup to Captain America: The First Avenger since I saw the face melting first trailer.  I did this because Marvel, god bless ’em, has a bad habit of revealing the best parts of their films in their commercials. (Not as bad as Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man 2 revealing EVERY part of their film in their 30+ commercials, but still.)  That first trailer gave me everything I needed to know about this film.  Since then, I’ve inadvertently overheard really positive stuff, going as far as to say, “It’s better than The Avengers”.  Well, I’m of the opinion that The Avengers is THE BEST superhero film ever made.  So, to even make a claim like that really raised my expectations for what I’d see.  I’m glad to report my expectations were met with ease.  Now, I’m not saying that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is better than The Avengers.  I mean, COME ON!  Need I remind you THIS happened?:

However, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the most well structured, action packed, comic book fan friendly, solo hero film Marvel Studios has ever made.  
Now let me get my largest criticism out of the way, because I’m a comic book movie snob.  We snobs complain first and praise second.  This movie should NOT be subtitled The Winter Soldier.  It is not an entirely accurate description of the main crux of the film.  As awesome as the actual Winter Soldier is, and holy f%#king sh%* is he awesome in this, he is merely an instrument for the story’s true villain.  A more appropriate title might have been Captain America: Shield vs S.H.I.E.L.D. or Captain America: The Sins Of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Captain America: The Soldier Without A Country.  Okay that last one is a bit wordy.  My point is that the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division is the beginning, middle and end of what this film is about.  It’s a story about Captain America finding his place in S.H.I.E.L.D. and S.H.I.E.L.D. realizing their place in the world.  The twists and turns that come with this journey are surprising, even with the film already being revealed to be a political thriller.  I mean, we heard that it would be, but did you actually think Marvel would have the balls to fully do so?  Well, they did.  The Winter Soldier himself does serve as a strong bridge into the next chapter of Steve Rogers’ story.  His presence somewhat mirrors that of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.  He steps in, causes major damage, then steps out.  But his potential for the future is astronomical.  Winter Soldier could be Marvel’s first legitimately dangerous and morally complex villain/anti-hero since Loki.   That’s because the breadcrumbs for this character have been laid out so well and the dynamic between him and Captain America is so strong.
Sebastian Stan will be a household name after this film, but let me just put in my two cents before he is.  I now understand what Joe Johnston and Kevin Feige saw in Stan when they cast him in Captain America: The First Avenger.  Not only did he have to be able to hint at the potential dark nature of (SPOILER ALERT) Bucky Barnes in the first film.  We also had to buy into his friendship Steve.  And that was something Stan accomplished in a very short amount of screentime.  That chemistry and friendship set the foundation for this film’s largest emotional conflict.  Over time, Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth brought to life two characters audiences now love to see on screen together.  Sebastian Stan and Chris Evans have the potential to be a worthy successor to them. 
While Stan’s character has established chemistry with Evans, Anthony Mackie and Scarlett Johansson create new and equally rich chemistry with him here.  From his first line of dialogue, I knew Mackie understood and loved this world he now inhabits.  He isn’t just the plucky comic relief either.  It is very easy to fall into the trap of playing a comic book character instead of playing an actual character.  Mackie doesn’t fall for it.  He brings legitimacy and realism to the role of Sam Wilson.  You never doubt that he is a capable soldier and that he has deeper layers to him.  The kindred spirit relationship he shares with Steve works well.  Their connection felt even realer to me than Tony Stark and Rhodey’s.  And speaking of layers, it is now evident that Scarlett Johansson understands Black Widow inside and out.  Watching her play around with the subtle intricacies of Natasha Romanoff never gets old for me.  Since that scene in Avengers where she uses her weakness to play Loki, I revel in the moments I get to see ScarJo play this part.  I also love how this film doesn’t resort to the predictably forced romantic relationship motif.  Cap’ and Widow are friends.  Their relationship is as fraternal as Cap’s relationship was with Bucky.  Having it be this way makes it more meaningful in my opinion.  They can talk without the hesitance that comes with romantic entanglements.  Their bond was only shown briefly in the Avengers, but thankfully expanded on in this film.  
There is a scene in Captain America: The Winter Soldier that I call “The Captain’s Orders Scene”.  You will know it when you see it.  On paper, it is a scene that probably shouldn’t work.  One might think it too corny or cliché.  Thoughts I used to have about Captain America as a comic book character in general.  However, Chris Evans has come into his own so much with Steve Rogers, I totally bought it.  I buy him and his entire wholesome, honest, righteous attitude.  And because I buy it, I accept it when other characters buy it too.  People are willing to fight and die for Cap’.  And if they let him down, they are genuinely upset that they did.  When Anthony Mackie’s character Sam Wilson says “I’m sorry Cap’.”, there isn’t one bit of cynicism behind his words.  Chris Evans made this concept work.  He made a grown man running around in a red, white and blue outfit spouting platitudes about freedom, justice and the American way friggin’ work…TODAY.  There was a time where Marvel was hesitant to even call their film Captain America due to their fear of how the title would be received in foreign markets.  Now I’m watching set videos from the Avengers: Age Of Ultron set in Seoul Korea where little Korean children are geeking out about that same Captain America running down their streets.  Chris Evans made that happen.  I was sorry to hear about Evans wanting to retire from acting.  It is going to be quite a task finding another actor who will be able to believably sell Captain America the same way he does.  
Dear Russo Brothers…I’m sorry I ever doubted your abilities to deliver an action spectacle befitting a superhero movie.  No, I’m serious.  The action scenes in The Winter Soldier are gonna surprise you.  They are gritty and bloody and brutally intense.  Hell, the street fight between Captain America and Winter Soldier is my second favorite one on one fight scene in a comic book movie.  (Spider-Man vs Doc Ock on the train is still my number one.)  In addition to their apparent mastery of action, the Russo’s do a great job filling out the film with great character moments.  No one feels superfluous and each character feels three dimensional.  A car ride conversation between Cap’ and Black Widow is as entertaining as a motorcycle vs Quinn Jet showdown.  Joe Johnston’s direction was perfect for the first film because of the era.  However, the Russo Brothers have figured out a solid blueprint for using this character in our time.  
To go on any further would be to spoil this movie more than I already have.  Needless to say, it earns its place as one of Marvel’s best and is deserving of all the praise it’s getting…um…except for that “Better Than The Avengers” praise.  I MEAN, COME ON!:
Say your pledge of allegiance…salute the flag…never get in an elevator with Steve Rogers…watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.  
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