(all with British accents)
Reviews by Ken Burke
This week’s analyses are truly like day and night, both in attitude and in high-key-comedic vs. low-key-dramatic approaches to cinematography, with no conceptual linkage I could impose upon them except their common British heritage (although the Scots associated with Under the Skin may take umbrage with even that connection) and their original release in 2013 (thus, neither are new films, just ones that have taken quite awhile to cross the Atlantic) so we’ll explore them in separate reviews rather than try to push them together in a manner inappropriate to their individual identities because they both deserve to be appreciated on their own engaging merits. As noted in the usual boilerplate Spoiler Alert warning just below, take note of how much you want revealed to you about either film in this week’s posting because Alan Partridge is not due to my San Francisco area until April 25, 2014 (although I’ve seen it at a press screening and am addressing my comments to other parts of the U.S., along with other global markets where it’s played for awhile now) and Under the Skin is set for a wider release in the U.S. this coming weekend of April 18, 2014 to build upon its current limited locations. If you don’t want to know too much yet, just note my capsule summaries and come back to this posting later when you’ve had a chance for viewing either or both of these films.
[Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ brilliantly insightful reviews. This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.
We also encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews, which we update with each new posting (please note that Two Guys critic Ken Burke is a bit odd—in more ways than one—using a 5-star-rating-system but rarely going to the level of 4 ½ or 5 stars, reserving those rankings for films that have been or should be acknowledged as time-honored masterpieces so that a 4 is about the best you can hope for from star-stingy Ken). But we ask you to be aware that the links we recommend within our many reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge. Other overall notations for this blog may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage. Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the brilliance.
Story of a wacky character well known to British audiences but marvelously funny even without having background knowledge of this small-market radio “personality.”
Unfortunately for me, I’ve never encountered the Alan Partridge character (played so wonderfully-well by Steve Coogan, barely recognizable from his frosty, irascible journalist role [based-in-reality Martin Sixsmith] in Philomena [Stephen Frears, 2013; review in our December 5, 2013 posting]), even though he’s been a staple on English radio, TV, and webcast for over 20 years (according to the promotional material for Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa [Declan Lowney]—as the film is known in most of the rest of the world—he began as a sports reporter on the BBC current affairs radio program, On the Hour, then continued in that vein [along with being quite vain] on the TV news parody, The Day Today, moved on to a TV talk show, Knowing Me, Knowing You [I’ll just have to imagine that it’s him we end up knowing more about rather than any of his guests], followed by a sitcom, I’m Alan Partridge, which returned him to his geographic roots in upper-eastern-England’s Norfolk county [sometimes given the unwarranted derision as “an illiterate incestuous backwater” according to one source I consulted—not the Bureau of Tourism—although the Queen has a popular tourist-attraction-residence at Sandringham House, many English notables have come from there (including circus proprietor Pablo Franque, whose 1843 poster inspired The Beatles' “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” on the 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album), while Alan Partridge is embraced by the real-world-locals so that this current film had exteriors shot in Norwich prior to its premiere there in July 2013] at Radio Norwich, eventually leading to the web-comedy-episodes of Mid Morning Matters [which you can view at the 3rd link noted far below for this film]), all of which brings us to the current Alan Partridge film as he continues his constantly-evolving-career as a talk-radio-personality (he and his mates call themselves disc jockeys, but they don’t play music very often) on what’s now called North Norfolk Digital, although it’s in the process of being taken over by Gordale Media, a conglomerate that’s rebranding it as SHAPE, with the constant tagline of “The Way You Want It To Be” (which reminds me of the plea/bargain that Charles Foster Kane [Orson Welles] offered to departing-second-wife Susan Alexander Kane [Dorothy Comingore] in Citizen Kane [Welles, 1941], which was just as phony then as it is now—at least Susan had the sense to realize that and keep walking whereas the good citizens of Norfolk and the radio employees are forced to play along with the corporate hype even as careers are being threatened). Alan assumes his job (along with that of his on-air-companion, Sidekick Simon [Tim Key]), is sacrosanct, but as he barges in on a top-brass-strategy-meeting he finds that he’s on the bubble along with night-shift-man Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney), so he responds with the only tactic he can conceive of regarding his long-time-friend at the station: “Just Sack Pat.” (Of course, if Google ever tried such a tactic with Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark I’d never sell out our Pat Craig like that [Remember Pat? To paraphrase a line from Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” “This is a website somewhat about Pat ...,” or at least it was supposed to be when we were both intending to contribute reviews]—especially because neither one of us makes a cent from this lofty operation, whether we write anything for it or not! Oh … hi, Pat, I … didn’t realize you were standing there … Good to see ya, man … now, where was I?)
The new bosses at SHAPE take Alan’s advice, forcing Pat (Farrell, that is, not Craig) to clear out quickly (although he has no idea about Alan’s involvement in the decision), which leads to despondent Pat grabbing a shotgun, taking Simon as a duct-taped-hostage in the broadcast booth with other hostages in another room at the station, while the local police recruit Alan to talk Pat out of it given Pat’s false assumption that Alan’s there to join in with the rebellion. Despite one shotgun blast and the frequent resting of this weapon next to Simon’s head, we never feel anything remotely resembling danger in this “terrorist” situation, especially when any potential tension is countered by scenes such as: (1) Alan coming out to talk to the crowd tethered to a rope controlled by Pat, ending with Alan telling the assembled that he has to go because “Pat’s tugging me off,” a mutual-masturbation-pun that even Alan rejects (OK, Google Overlords, calm down! I’m just quoting the f***ing film), (2) Alan joining Pat on the air for a spin of Willie Nelson’s recording of “Always on My Mind,” resulting in faux-slobbery-sentiment from both of these “he-men,” and (3) a chance for Alan to escape the station through an overlooked back door, but instead he attempts to re-enter via a transom window, ripping off his pants in the process to be replaced later with plastic provided by the police draped around his bottom half. The situation gets more manic when the cops finally break into the “bunker,” but Alan and Pat escape to the radio station’s tour bus where they continue to broadcast as they wind their way through the streets of Norwich until Pat finally discovers that Alan was instrumental in his sacking. Alan somehow manages to hide in the toilet (a preposterously-impossible-escape, as we can just barely see Alan’s face through the small hole in the bottom of the bowl, but an appropriate situation for this wacky film nonetheless), escapes when the entire septic-tank-assembly falls off the bottom of the bus, then is cornered by Pat on Cromer Pier. As the idiotic events of Alan Partridge begin to wind down, Pat admits that he’s not really angry at Alan so much as depressed by the death of his wife so he attempts to kill himself but the shotgun’s too long for him to be able to aim it at his own head and still reach the trigger so he asks Alan to do it for him. Alan throws the gun away but it discharges, hitting Alan in the leg, to be followed by another bullet to his shoulder by an accidental shot from a police sniper. Alan's not that seriously injured, Pat ends up in jail but he has a regular weekly call-in spot on Mid Morning Matters (just a quick question-and-answer bit, though, hardly worth leaving his cell for), Alan and Simon get back in the groove, and Alan takes up with fellow-employee Angela Ashbourne (Monica Dolan) as if none of this had ever happened, with nary a hair out of place on his fast-frozen coif as he heads off on a boating trip with Angela and her kids.
Alan Partridge, for me, is just zanily-hilarious from start to finish, both because it’s so well written and because—not being familiar with these characters and their less-than-logical-responses to life—I was constantly surprised at the foolish situations and reactions that all of them had to both takeovers: corporate and Pat (I know that Pat Craig would never consider such an action to commandeer Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark—although that might be easier than actually writing something … oh, Pat, are you still there? And what are you doing with that rusty BB gun you were eyeing at that estate sale we were wandering around at last Saturday?). I don’t know how well this latest adventure stacks up against the long-running-heritage of previous Partridge encounters, but if there’s even funnier stuff in the past then I’ve got to search it out. I found this type of ridiculous British comedy to be right up there with the best of Monty Python and the old BBC TV series (1972-1985), Are You Being Served?, but context is often key for comic impact so your tastes have to be open for this sort of silly humor—and maybe you have to be a novice with Partridgisms to fully appreciate this new addition to the catalogue, but I’d hope that regular-Partridge-advocates would be just as satisfied as I was (certainly critics have been in the few U.S. markets where the film is already playing, with a current 88% positive at Rotten Tomatoes [although just a 67 score at Metacritic so far but based on only 20 reviews so I’d encourage checking back there later; details on both can be found in the links suggested to accompany the film far below this review]). Many more of you will soon be able to find Alan as this cinematic delight rolls out across the country, so I encourage you to check it out when you get a chance; in the meantime take a look at that large dose of Mid Morning Matters at the link far below to get a sense of whether this is your cup of high tea or not, or, if you’re in more of a melancholy than funny mood, then I’ll close out this review with my easily-found-musical-metaphor of “Shotgun” Willie (the name of Nelson’s 1973 album [that propelled his “outlaw” image], possibly providing another karmic connection for Pat … Farrell, of course) crooning “Always on My Mind” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7f189Z0v0Y (a song written by Johnny Christopher, Mark James, and Wayne Carson, first recorded by Brenda Lee and Gwen McCrae in 1972, then by Elvis Presley also in ‘72; Willie released a version in 1982 that won 3 Grammies—Song of the Year, Best Country Song, Best Male Country Vocal Performance—along with these awards from the Country Music Association: 1982 and 1983 Song of the Year [how they decided that I’m not clear], 1982 Single of the Year, and 1982 Album of the Year, Always on My Mind). For the ladies, of course!
Under the Skin
An alien woman on a mission to seduce and capture men in Scotland begins to understand humans in the process; not easy to follow but fascinating nevertheless.
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer) isn’t technically a new release but most of you probably haven’t had a chance to see it yet because it’s in only about 50 U.S. theaters so far, although it's scheduled for a wider rollout on the weekend of April 18, 2014 (as you’ll see, it’s the perfect Easter movie—that is, if you want to concentrate on Holy Saturday when Jesus was laying in his tomb, because it’s a very serious, unnerving story that doesn’t provide a lot of documented explanation for those who want more details in their narratives) so, again, beware of Plot Spoilers here, although one could make the argument that it’s hard to spoil a plot that mostly doesn’t exist. Now, assuming that you’re still around for the commentary, what we have here is a creepy story about aliens infiltrating Scotland (a culture poised to reclaim its individual nationhood from Great Britain, so apologies offered to anyone offended by my initial grouping of this one with Alan Partridge as a British film, although technically it is, at least until that much-anticipated September 18, 2014 independence referendum, after which a lot of things Scottish may be retroactively reacquired as homegrown), with the primary focus on the unnamed character played by Scarlett Johansson luring men into some sort of liquid prison for unspecified purposes (or, if they were ever specified I’m still just as much in the dark as were those guys led into her tunnel of doom in my attempts to understand most of what was said in those thick, full-blown Trainspotting [Danny Boyle, 1996] accents; it’s just as well that much of this film is acted out in silence because if you have to depend on dialogue to follow the narrative you’re up shite creek without a paddle). However, I have the advantage of my wife, Nina, being so fascinated by the mysterious goings-on in this film that she immediately bought the Michel Faber novel (of the same name, published in 2000) so she’s been filling me in on aspects of the story not presented nor clarified onscreen; I’ll pass some of that along to you after I’ve addressed the film itself. You’ll find as I do so, though, that I won’t be referring to any character names because there are none listed in the adaptation (again, there’s not much dialogue here, more a series of somewhat-connected-events, so there’s little need for anyone to address anyone else by name to help you keep up with who’s who—except for Johansson’s character and a couple of others we don’t see anyone for too long anyway). Some of the faces onscreen don’t need identification for another reason: in many of the street scenes the people walking along or being seen from Johansson’s perspective within her cruising white van are just Scots living in the film’s locations being observed on-camera with no inclusion of these human actualities in script or rehearsal. They’re truly an example of “what you see is what you get.”
If you’ve ever heard of the Surrealist exquisite corpse game of the 1920s-‘30s—where someone would start a drawing then fold it so that the next artist could see only a few of the lines before adding another part then folding again before passing it on, etc.—then you might understand my reference to this script as seeming like it was “exquisite-corpsed” by Stanley Kubrick (who would have to have begun the project sometime before he died in 1999—unless he knows more about the afterlife than we've realized), Lars von Trier, and Jim Jarmusch, because it carries their characteristic sense of the unknown and unpredictable yet doesn’t seem interested in explaining what’s going on, why, nor what might occur after the few events that we’re privy to watch (a problem for some critics of Under the Skin, although it’s done quite well so far in its short-release-life at Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic; again, please consult the suggested links far below if you’d like to know more details). All we’re sure of is that Johansson, in various stages of undress, lures randomly-selected Glasgow men (but she only “keeps” those who have few connections, seemingly so they won’t be easily missed) to a very dark place (literally and figuratively) where they willingly submerge into some strange liquid (which we understand as such because even as they sink we continue to see her full reflection in it, with them disappearing and her able to walk on the stuff) until such time as their innards are sucked out of their skin (seemingly sent down a conveyer belt, as we see in an unexplained, very red shot), all the while with Johansson herself under the command of a motorcycle rider (and his colleagues in one scene) who takes major offense at her decision to let one guy go who’s suffering from neurofibromatosis, leaving him with an Elephant Man (David Lynch, 1980)-level of facial deformity. That’s really about all of the plot there is here except for the violent ending when a logger-truck driver attempts to rape Johansson only to recoil in fear when some of the skin on her back tears, revealing dark blue underneath; he runs away, after which she pulls off her human skin, revealing a thin, dark-blue creature underneath who looks quizzically at the still-conscious-seeming-face whom we know as Miss Scarlett, but then the freaked-out guy returns, douses the alien with gasoline (this end scene is when we’re finally sure in the film that she [if, indeed, this extraterrestrial is female; we get a very discomforting question about that in an earlier scene when she tries to make love to a guy who's being nice to her—she's responsive as well—only to find that she has no vagina, so we have to assume that “her” outer covering has been manufactured by a species with some other form of reproduction rather than taken from a human victim] is truly out-of-this-world, but there are clear clues from her liquid-walking-capturing-procedure, the unrequired-love-scene just noted, and her attempt to eat cake which she can’t digest), then sets her on fire, ending the film with no further explanations, smoke billowing in the forest as she’s incinerated out of pure unknowing fear.
As for what I’ve learned from Nina’s in-progress-reading of the novel (which, sadly, isn’t enough yet to offer a proper comparison here, although I get the sense that there’s a lot of significant difference, especially in terms of clear explication about who these aliens are and what their presence on Earth is all about), our unnamed female and her motorcycle-riding male leader (I guess things aren’t all that different on other planets after all) are extraterrestrials but of a far different variety than what we glimpse in this cinematic adaptation of Under the Skin. On their home planet (wherever that is) they’re much more like lions (I guess), hairy beasts with tails and claws, walking on all fours, so they’re a very different species “under the skin” than what we see cinematically, accomplishing a major feat just by moving only on their hind legs (although most of what we see of these aliens in the film puts them in or on a motorized vehicle, so that may be more intentional that we’d understand just by the direct screen imagery). The motorcycle “man” (we assume, but again with little direct evidence) is consistently covered with a helmet, but Johansson’s face is ever-evident (with her usual Captain America: The Winter Soldier [Anthony Russo, Joe Russo; review in our April 10, 2014 posting]-style-appearance slightly altered by her corresponding helmet-hairstyle-with-thick-bangs-wig), although her unengaged visage would seem to be inspired by the Rolling Stones’ “Girl with Far-Away Eyes” (given the strangeness of this film, it’s not really inappropriate for me to just cut away right now—plus it connects a bit to the Jesus references below for Easter—for a listen if you like at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyK1bZZ7E-s; the song was originally on the 1978 Some Girls album, the first to fully incorporate Ron Wood into the band’s personnel). Her equally-unemotional-demeanor works well in this role, as evidenced in a scene where she brings about a blasé death to a man she sees on the beach who was desperately trying to rescue a family where one tragedy has led to the next (wife attempts to help dog, husband goes after wife, all die) in strong currents and smashing waves; once he’s lifeless, she simply walks away, leaving the body for her companion to gather up (not clear why the earlier guys are seduced into the ooze while this one is just killed on the spot), with the couple’s distraught baby abandoned on the beach. Just as your viewing tastes may not be ready for the wicked humor of Alan Partridge they may be similarly distant from the weird plot-holed-experience of Under the Skin (the closest comparison I can make regarding finding the concept fascinating even though you don’t really know what’s going on a lot of the time is the low-budget-time-travel-complexly-plotted Primer [Steve Carruth], a hit of the 2004 Sundance Festival, but when I convinced some friends to see it as it hit theatrical release they just fell asleep so I’ll admit that sometimes my tastes are hard to fathom for many moviegoers). Still, I found Under the Skin to be a mesmerizing attraction, with the impenetrable character (in more than one sense of the word) played by Johansson, the eerie atmosphere maintained effectively throughout the narrative, and the mysteriously-dark-cinematography all contributing to its success, so even if you’ve read my comments without having yet seen the film I’ll still recommend attending a screening because there’s really not that much plot to reveal here anyway; it’s all in the sensual experience of the cinematic bath that hopefully won’t leave you as helplessly hoping for release as were Johansson’s victims in that translucent “tar” pit of hers.
Even without the more-detailed-far-out-elements of Under the Skin’s source-novel (defamation claims about my portrayal of the book’s contents should be directed directly to my unpaid-research-associate, Ms. Nina Kindblad; lawyers, have your assistants contact my assistants—their names are Annie and Inky, but they respond better to “kitty treats”—for Nina’s email address or look her up directly on Facebook, where she frequently posts stunning photos of me [I’m taking media-relations-lessons from Mr. Partridge]), there’s a constantly-serious-tone to the film which revisits me in chilling form even when I was recalling it in the process of writing this review. Therefore, to dispel this disturbing murk, I think that Under the Skin’s musical metaphor needs be of an Alan Partridge-style-lighten-up-nature, so I’ll go with the Bee Gee’s “More than a Woman” (from the 1977 Saturday Night Fever soundtrack) at http://www.youtube. com/watch?v=eTQ4MEjVAwc, a scene taken directly from the movie (directed by John Badham) with the song providing context for the emerging romance of the disco-conquering-characters of Tony Manero (John Travolta) and Stephanie Mangano (Karen Lynn Gorney)—or if you’d prefer to see the Brothers Gibb (when Robin and Maurice were still alive) actually performing the tune, along with another of that soundtrack’s hits, “Night Fever,” here they are at a 1997 live performance in Las Vegas at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2tvp5j-E3Q. I feel that this odd pairing of film and song appropriately references Johansson’s “more-than”-female quite nicely, as well as paralleling those indecipherable Scottish accents with the Gibbs’ high-harmonies which leave me equally clueless as to what lyrics they’re singing much of the time even as I enjoy just being in the presence of this music (and film). But, then, just as I was about to bring this posting to a close a mysterious white van pulled up, the driver’s window lowered, and this other-worldly-attractive-woman whispered something about “Post some more music that has nothing to do with my film” (or, at least, that’s the best translation I could make on the spot of “Pos um or moo’c a’as noin’ tad wt me fm’’—I wonder if the Scots do a radio show called Mid Morning Mutters), so in my rush to catch up with her as she started to drive away (ripping off my shirt to show her my rippling muscles, which must be somewhere under these man-boobs) I quickly came up with all I could think of, which are unused links from the Alan Partridge review above, so here for your slightly-surreal-perspective on the oddly-evolving-seemingly-unconnected-aspects of Under the Skin are The Beatles with “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2T_Txm QEZXg (actually, here they look like the Lonely Hearts Club Band in animated form) and Arlo Guthrie with a live version of “Alice’s Restaurant” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yLg_bzw vxg (from Farm Aid 2005 in Tinley Park, Illinois, September 18, 2005; this rendition lasts 16:34, sung at a slightly quicker tempo than the original recording, which I’ve used in a previous review, running at 18:16; with no intention to do so, it’s amazing to me how much I now look like Arlo [this video clip was 9 years ago but the images on his website show little change; compare if you like to a shot of me from our March 28, 2014 posting, where fortunately for you there’s more of Nina to look at than me]). Then, just as I was catching up with the van it was rammed by several ghostly motorcycle riders (who looked oddly like Nicholas Cage), shooting the whole thing up in flames so I guess I’ll just return to the incendiary finale of the film after all, offering the musical coda of The Doors' “Light My Fire” (from the 1967 album The Doors) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6O6x _m4zvFs), a 10 min. black-and-white-video of a 1968 performance in Europe, because when Nina reads this and sees one of her favorite hunks, Jim Morrison. her temperature will start to rise to the point where she’ll feel that she has to peel off her skin, and then THE REST OF THIS TEXT HAS BEEN CENSORED BY GOOGLE ROBOTS AND SPIDERS. PLEASE MAKE NO ATTEMPT TO RETRIEVE THIS CONTENT INAPPROPRIATE FOR A FAMILY-FRIENDLY WEBSITE.
Well, I guess that about wraps up this edition of Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark, posted during the period when Christians give honor to Holy Week (with the remembrances of Holy Thursday and Good Friday), Jews celebrate the beginning of Passover’s holy days, those of us more religiously devoted to baseball honor Jackie Robinson’s on-field-debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers with everyone on the field each April 15 now wearing number 42 (his first big-league-game was on April 15, 1947, just one of the very many events of that year [including Arlo Guthrie’s birth on July 10] to take attention away from what should have been the focus given to my birthday in December, but at least on that day NYC got 27” of snow, a pre-emptive retaliation for my bad memories of living there in 1972-73 and my later distaste for the payroll-busting-procedures of the NY Yankees), and, of course, for anyone below the 1% income level in the U.S. (with the upper-plateau's fat-cat-politician-buying-tax-breaks) we have the other “celebration” on each April 15, the dreaded-tax-deadline-day (Nina and I had to pay a good chunk this year, even with our non-income from Google-denied-ads on this obviously potentially-profitable-website, with its many international readers—seriously, folks, thanks to the several thousand of you globally who even skim my reviews on a monthly basis, let alone those of you who actually read them), so I’ll close out this posting with George Harrison’s snarky commentary on tax-collectors-worldwide at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZqK97av7I3s, “Taxman” (from The Beatles’ magnificent 1966 Revolver album; no real video on this clip, though, just the original recording). Two Guys (well, one of us for sure) will resurrect next week with comments on the new Kevin Costner football-based-movie, Draft Day (Ivan Reitman), so until then, we wish a Happy Easter to those who celebrate such (for Nina and me it’s more like Happy Ham Dinner day with the relatives followed by another marvelous episode of AMC’s Mad Men, but Jesus—and Elijah—are always welcome to join us).
If you’d like to know more about Alan Partridge here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFD8tFHvq4g (a bit over 2 hours of previous Alan Partridge Mid Morning Matters Web episodes)
If you’d like to know more about Under the Skin here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZUvIfXKVVc (22 min. interview with director Jonathan Glazer)
As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.