Thursday, July 17, 2014

On DVD/Blu-ray: UNDER THE SKIN (2014) and A NIGHT IN OLD MEXICO (2014)

(UK/Switzerland/US - 2014)

A loose, stripped-down adaptation of Michel Faber's 2000 novel, UNDER THE SKIN spent nearly seven years in pre-production before director/co-writer Jonathan Glazer (SEXY BEAST, BIRTH) finally started shooting in 2011. On a very basic, narrative level, it's about an alien visitor (Scarlett Johansson) driving around Glasgow in a van, picking up men, seducing them, and draining their lifeforce. It sounds like the plot of cheesy B-movie, but UNDER THE SKIN is a hypnotic, abstract, and often surreal and experimental sci-fi art film that lulls you into a near trance with its visuals and Mica Levi's eerie, minimalist score. It owes a certain debt to Nicolas Roeg's THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976) but bringing to mind a markedly less-abrasive stylistic take on Gaspar Noe's ENTER THE VOID (2011). Johanssen takes the men--played mostly by non-professional actors using improvised dialogue--to what looks like a typical Glasgow flat from the outside but the interior is an otherworldly realm with a black liquid floor into which they descend. As she collects more victims, she begins to experience emotional connection, especially with a painfully shy young man with a facial disfigurement (Adam Pearson, who suffers from neurofibromatosis), which marks the turning point in the story. She's also being pursued by a perpetually one-step-behind mystery cyclist (retired Grand Prix motorcycle racer Jeremy McWilliams) monitoring her activities. Dialogue is sparse throughout, and when it's used the Scottish accents of the non-actors are often so thick and garbled that the audience will feel--by design--as alienated as Johansson does. For the first hour, UNDER THE SKIN has an enigmatic, dream-like aura, complete with unnerving, droning music, soundscapes, and bizarre visuals as Glazer adamantly avoids clear-cut explanations. The latter part of the film finds Glazer taking things in a--relatively speaking--conventional direction as he begins telling something of an actual story.

UNDER THE SKIN is most effective when it's providing as few details as possible. If approached from a position of expecting a linear, cohesive story, the film is bound to disappoint, especially with its abrupt conclusion. Fortunately, the bulk of the film is not concerned with narrative issues as we see a disorienting Glasgow through Johansson's alien eyes, traveling through the streets and shopping malls, trying to comprehend the human existence. It doesn't make any philosophical or political points and it doesn't need to. It's Glazer using film as a visual and sound medium in a way that lives up to its title. A perfectly-cast Johansson is excellent, accomplishing very much by doing very little in a brilliantly nuanced and very subtle performance that should be studied side by side with David Bowie's in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. UNDER THE SKIN is a film that washes over you, casts a spell, seduces and haunts you, much like the victims of its protagonist. The midnight movie crowds of decades passed would've embraced the hell out of this. (R, 108 mins)

(Spain/US - 2014)

The great Robert Duvall is a national treasure showing no signs of slowing down, but A NIGHT IN OLD MEXICO, which could easily be titled NO COUNTRY FOR GRUMPY OLD MEN, again finds him in his now-standard "cantankerous old coot" mode. Duvall has nothing to prove to anyone at this point in his career, but he's played this role so many times that he can do it in his sleep. Perhaps that's why he opts to go through A NIGHT IN OLD MEXICO doing a feature-length impression of Uncle Pecos. We all love Duvall, but this film is just awful. Duvall co-produced it with his buddy Bill Wittliff, who also wrote the teleplay to LONESOME DOVE, one of the actor's most iconic works. Wittliff has also scripted films like THE BLACK STALLION (1979), BARBAROSA (1982), and LEGENDS OF THE FALL (1994), but OLD MEXICO won't go down as a career highlight. Duvall is Red Bovie, an irascible old Texas rancher being forced off his property to make room for a new housing community. Just as he's about to blow his brains out, he meets Gally (Jeremy Irvine), the grandson he never knew he had. Gally's father left home decades earlier, following the path forged by Red's wife, who got fed up with her husband's crotchety ways and split (this is a recurring motif with geriatric Duvall characters; see also JAYNE MANSFIELD'S CAR, or better yet, don't). Soon enough, Red and Gally are heading off in Red's classic Cadillac to "old Mexico" on a male-bonding road trip (thankfully we're spared a Tex-Mex cover of "Born to Be Wild") that gets a brief detour thanks to a pair of shitbag hitch-hikers who are carrying a bag of cash that belongs to Mexican drug cartel kingpin Panama (Luis Tosar). After getting a bad vibe, Red ditches the pair when they get out of the car to take a leak, and proceeds into Mexico unaware that a vast sum of cash in his car. Once in Mexico, Red stops at a whorehouse to get his "horn honked," and harangues Gally with taunts of "ol' Five-Finger Nelly" when he declines the old man's offer of a prostitute. Meanwhile, a very Anton Chigurh-like assassin named Cholo (Joaquin Cosio) relentlessly pursues Panama's cash as Red and Gally deal with long-dormant family issues.

Every development and character arc is either completely predictable or thoroughly unbelievable, starting with Red's unlikely romance with aspiring, several-decades-younger singer Patty Wafers (Angie Cepeda), which prompts an almost creepy competition between grandfather and grandson over who's going to sleep with her. Of course Red and Gally will butt heads, part ways, and of course big city tenderfoot Gally, with his red cowboy boots and ridiculous hat, will return to show his grandfather that he's a real man by facing down Panama. Wittliff and director Emilio Aragon can't decide if A NIGHT IN OLD MEXICO is a serious look at an aging hellraiser's last hurrah or a raunchy geezer comedy, or whether it's a leisurely, comfort-food road movie for Duvall's aging fans or a loud, bloody Sam Peckinpah shoot 'em up. There's a reason this only made it to a few theaters and VOD: too vulgar for elderly moviegoers, too dumb for the arthouse, and too boring for just about everyone else, it's a film with no target audience. It's an aimless, plodding mess that not even the presence of Duvall can salvage. At 83 years of age, it's nice to see that Duvall is still getting lead roles.  It would be a lot nicer if they were in projects that were worthy of him. (Unrated, 104 mins)

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