Under the Skin
⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rated: R for graphic nudity, sexual content, violence and some language.
How to grapple with the hallucinatory style, the fundamental and systematic strangeness of “Under the Skin”? It’s dauntingly oblique, a mystery-thriller about an extraterrestrial pod person (Scarlett Johansson at her moodiest and most enigmatic) trolling for male humans.
The movie is a trancelike, disorienting experience, to be absorbed, digested, debated but not swiftly understood.
This is not a case of being weird just for the hell of it. Director Jonathan Glazer guides the story in a way that makes the audience feel the detachment of Johansson’s largely mute (and mutant) Mona Lisa. He cloaks the picture in dark, rain-soaked colors and shadows, and pushes the subliminal white noise of daily life to the forefront.
Johansson drives through Glasgow and the Scottish countryside in a van. In scenes that hum with menace, she strikes up flirtatious conversations of mechanical small talk with random men. Enchanting them like a siren, she takes them to a dark, decrepit house. Inside, she leads them in a fatal mating dance, baring her inviting flesh. Like somnambulists the men walk toward her, undergoing an indefinable and horrifying transformation.
Johansson’s mission gradually changes her, too. Near the beginning, she observes a heartbreaking act of bravery and sacrifice without a flicker of compassion. She is an actress gifted enough that this passivity is riveting.
Over time she begins to exhibit signs of curiosity about humans, even empathy. Is it because she has she been contaminated by overexposure to emotional homo sapiens? Aroused by our tenderness and mystery?
There are no answers, but if there were, would they really explain this haunting, inscrutable film and the heart-punch of the final image? Built from a rare alloy of formal control and horror-film tension, “Under the Skin” is original to the highest degree. Is it a great film? I’m not convinced. Are there moments of greatness in it? Quite a few.
Finding Vivian Maier
⋆⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Unrated: Suitable for all audiences. In English and subtitled French.
In 2007, Chicago history buff John Maloof bought cases of undeveloped negatives at an auction house and made a discovery that stunned the art world. It was a cache of brilliant photographs by an unknown camerawoman whose shots of mid-20th-century street scenes rank alongside the work of the era’s recognized masters.
The film excitingly chronicles Maloof’s detective work as he digs into the identity of this reclusive, overlooked artist. Vivian Maier, who worked as a nanny for upper-crust families on Chicago’s North Shore, was an enigma. A portrait emerges of a hoarder and a spiky eccentric with a miraculous eye for photographic composition.
The images show Maier’s eye for the macabre (there are shots worthy of crime photographer Weegee or Diane Arbus), and an appreciation for individuals caught in the act of being themselves.
The film was codirected by Maloof and Charlie Siskel, nephew of the late Chicago Tribune film critic Gene Siskel. He does his uncle proud. If you enjoyed the similarly themed “20 Feet From Stardom” and “Searching for Sugarman,” this may be the most pleasurable 83 minutes you will spend in a theater this year.
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: PG-13 for brief strong language and sexual references.