MONDAY SEPTEMBER 25, 2017
 
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TIFF13 DAY 8: BACK TO THE '90S
UnderTheSkin.jpg

Another day, another batch of TIFF reviews. This time up: a look at the latest efforts by ’90s Canuck art house darling Atom Egoyan and former music video maestro Jonathan Glazer’s latest creation.

Under The Skin

First things first. Jonathan Sexy Beast Glazer’s latest film is deeply indebted to Nicolas Roeg’s ’70s trip-out sci-fi classic The Man Who Fell To Earth, borrowing from the central concept and themes. However, Glazer has made something that isn’t an homage, but a completely different film and unique cinematic experience in its own right. It’s a gorgeous slice of experimental cinema masquerading as a genre movie – and a project that confirms Glazer’s status as an original filmmaker who has graduated out of his position as one of the most innovative music video directors of the ’90s. It’s also confounding, pretentious and probably not worth the almost 10-year struggle the director fought to bring it to the screen. But I suppose that just comes with the territory with this sort of thing.

Scarlett Johansson stars as an alien who fell to Earth. How or why is unclear, but her mission appears to involve seducing men into a mysterious black room that, once naked, sucks them into a puddle (yep, it’s that type of movie). After a number of these deadly seductions, Johansson kidnaps a couple men who touch her in unexpected ways. She starts to develop a sense of humanity and can’t quite deal with it. Cue an existential crisis crafted with stunningly evocative visual and aural beauty. You know, it’s a European art film just like they used to make: challenging, elliptical, alienating, gorgeous, and oddly moving. Things frequently slide into feeling confusing and frustrating, but at least the style always demands attention and Johansson is just mysterious and naked enough to carry the movie (despite the dodgiest British accent this side of Russell Crowe that she only gets away with because she’s playing an alien that presumably doesn’t quite understand what a British accent is).

One of the most fascinating elements of the film is something that isn’t necessarily apparent while watching it. The bulk of the movie was shot with hidden cameras and apart from a few key roles, all of Johansson’s co-stars were non-actors unaware that they were being filmed. That’s a ballsy production model and one that suits the disorienting tone quite well. The fact that Glazer was able to shoot the film that way without sacrificing any of his stunningly composed subjective imagery is a true testament to his talent. Under The Skin is an undeniably fascinating film that reminds audiences why Glazer deserved to be missed in the nine years since Birth. However, it’s also far from perfect and pretty self-indulgent. The film is a fascinating wank, but a wank nonetheless. Let’s just hope Glazer is able to get his next project mounted a little faster and finds another solid screenplay like Sexy Beast because neither of the visually and conceptually driven films he’s made since his debut have been quite as compelling.  

 

Devil's Knot starring Reese WitherspoonDevil’s Knot

After a year of post-production tinkering, Atom Egoyan’s latest film is finally here and the resounding disappointment is tough to take. The flick takes on the now culturally iconic true tale of The West Memphis Three. For those unfamiliar, that refers to three teenage boys from West Memphis who were tried and convicted of heinous child murders that they didn’t commit. They were all sentenced to life or the death penalty and would be dead now or still serving time were it not for the documentary Paradise Lost – a film shot during the trial that made their innocence clear. That doc and its sequels created a groundswell movement to free The West Memphis Three, which finally happened in 2011 after the boys were forced to plead guilty (while still pledging innocence) to get released for timed served. It’s a fascinating story filled with mysteries, outrage, corruption and intriguing characters.

Despite there being so many different possible approaches and perspectives to take with this particular material, Egoyan inexplicably decided to follow none of them. Instead, he elected to tell the story of the murders and trial without any moralization or perspective. It’s just a dry run through the whole mess. That’s not a terrible way to take on the tale, or at least it wouldn’t be if there weren’t already four documentaries out there that run through the facts. For anyone who knows the case, there’s absolutely nothing new to be found in Egoyan’s movie, other than the odd sight of watching Reese Witherspoon as one of the victim’s mother, who was far more mentally unbalanced in real life and didn’t look a thing like a movie star. How a movie this dry and boring was made from such a rich piece of history is an even bigger mystery than who was responsible for the crimes being explored.

Now, there is one possible explanation for how the film went so wrong. Egoyan spent a year editing the movie and given the fact that it isn’t an eight-hour experimental epic with complex post production effects, that suggests struggle, confusion, and reworking. Perhaps at one point, the movie had a clear perspective and even presented accusations that the filmmakers backed out on because the project is about real people and that means the potential for libel lawsuits. Reese’s character being at the centre was loaded with potential since the character’s husband is now considered a prime suspect. A film about her slowly coming to that realization would be a unique take on the material. But whether initially intended or not, that’s irrelevant now. The movie that was made is an episodic series of recreations desperately in search of something approximating a purpose. What a shame. Thankfully, there are three pretty fantastic films already about the subject and since they are documentaries following the case as it happens, they’re also far more interesting and effective than Devil’s Knot could have dreamed of being.

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