Tag Archives: alien

The Untamed

The Untamed

Seen at L’Étrange Festival, Paris (France)

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Distributor: Arrow Academy

Release date: 22 May 2017

Director: Amat Escalante

Writers: Amat Escalante, Gibrán Portela

Cast: Kenny Johnston, Simone Bucio

Original title: La región salvaje

Mexico, Denmark, France 2016

100 mins

Amat Escalante’s SF exploration of Mexican society’s attitudes to sexuality is compelling despite its overuse of the supernatural.

Two Mexican films shown this year at the Etrange Festival – The Darkness and The Untamed – happen to focus on a small house in a forest clearing where strange things happen. But this is as far as the comparison extends. Awarded the Silver Lion for Best Director at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Amat Escalante’s The Untamed borrows its premise from Pasolini’s Theorem: a family is disrupted by the arrival of a very attractive stranger who seduces all of its members and turns theirs lives upside down. Where Pasolini was lashing out at the Italian bourgeoisie of the 1960s, Escalante similarly confronts a contemporary Mexican society still hopelessly bogged down in machismo, misogyny and homophobia.

The opening sequence, which contrasts two visions of female sexuality, gives a good insight into what Escalante is driving at. After a shot of a meteorite in outer space, the camera zooms on a naked Veronica (Simone Bucio) slowly reaching a climax in a dark room, eventually revealing a glimpse of the receding long tentacle that has just given her pleasure. She then leaves the wood cabin wounded and bleeding. In the next scene we witness a couple – Angel (Jesús Meza) and Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) – waking up in a sunlit bedroom. Without any preliminaries or even a kiss, Angel takes Ale from behind while the camera zooms in on her face, still and expressionless on the pillow as she waits for him to come. She then wipes herself, gets up and masturbates under the shower until she is interrupted by their kids… After meeting Ale’s gay brother Fabian (Eden Villavicencio), who works as a nurse in the local hospital, Veronica intrudes into the lives of those three characters, changing them for ever.

She is the visitor here, and Escalante plays on the name given to Terence Stamp’s character in Theorem, as the Visitor in this story is also an alien creature from outer space. The director justifies his recourse to the supernatural by the fact that reality has already gone beyond fiction, but by including a long explicit sex scene between Ale and the alien (and why not one of the men?) – which was greeted by laughter among the audience of the L’Étrange Festival – he undermines more than he enhances the film’s social criticism. In Possession (1981), Andrzej Żuławski (whose influence is acknowledged in the final credits) explicitly opted for the realm of madness, altogether forsaking realism. But Escalante wants to have it both ways and fails to solve the conflict between the genres. Showing the demon in Possession made sense in order to blur the boundaries between fantasy and reality. But since Escalante’s alien is established as real from the outset, it is hard to see the point of a sex scene that, far from producing the disturbing effect it had in Żuławski, seems to be revisiting Hideki Takayama’s manga and animés with an Overfiend redesigned by H. R. Giger. Escalante would have been better advised to follow the example of his Mexican compatriot Daniel Castro Zimbrén in The Darkness and retain more mystery, so that the otherworldly presence might serve more efficiently as a metaphor for the Mexican social atavisms he has been so brilliantly exposing in his films since his 2005 feature debut Sangre. The Untamed tones down the violence that shocked in Heli (2013) or Los Bastardos (2008) in favour of a more diffuse atmosphere of sadness and despair that still succeeds to convey Escalante’s powerful social message – despite, rather than thanks to, the alien’s presence.

Pierre Kapitaniak

The untamed screens at the London Film Festival on 8, 10, 16 October 2016.

The Martian

The Martian
The Martian

Format: Cinema

Release date: 30 September 2015

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Director: Ridley Scott

Writer: Drew Goddard

Based on the novel by: Andy Weir

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor

USA 2015

141 mins

** out of *****

Overrated hack Ridley Scott has made a handful of moderately passable pictures since Alien, his 1979 horror-in-space masterpiece. Any tepid accolades I might allow for The Martian, however, are little more than back-handed compliments. The best thing I can say about the picture is that it’s watchable; the finest work Scott has wrenched out of his rectum since the miraculous aforementioned fluke.

By now, most viewers will know that The Martian details a manned mission to Mars in which one astronaut (a cute, hunky and plucky Matt Damon) is left behind for dead, only he’s most assuredly alive and needs to muster all his scientific know-how to survive until a rescue mission can be launched. And that’s pretty much it. One man alone against the Angry Red Planet.

Based on the popular novel by Andy Weir and decently scripted by Drew Goddard, the film-on-paper must have seemed a sure-fire science-fiction survival tale with relatively distinctive characters, both in the rescue ship and back on Earth at NASA, plus a lot of great monologue-style dialogue for Damon to utter as the stranded astronaut.

The film conjures memories of Byron Haskin’s (The War of the Worlds, From the Earth to the Moon, Conquest of Space) modest, but terrific 1964 survival adventure Robinson Crusoe on Mars. The memories Ridley Scott’s film will eventually inspire are mostly how good Haskin’s film was and how woefully overblown and occasionally dull The Martian is.

We know from the beginning that yummy Matt is not going to die and that good, old-fashioned American bravery and know-how is going to save the day. The ride to get to this predictable conclusion is mildly diverting at best. Buried beneath its layers of fat is a much snappier, pulpier movie wanting to burst forth like the parasitical penis-creature that exploded from within John Hurt’s chest in Alien.

I’ve always wondered what happened to the Ridley Scott of that 1979 classic.

The Martian could have used that guy.

Greg Klymkiw

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Format: Cinema

Release date: 26 September 2014

Distributor: Arrow Films

Director: Leigh Janiak

Writers: Phil Graziadei, Leigh Janiak

Cast: Rose Leslie, Harry Treadaway, Bem Huber

USA 2014

87 mins

In what was one of the highlights of the Discovery Screen programme at Film4 FrightFest, newly-married couple Paul and Bea arrive at her family’s cabin in the woods for their honeymoon. Although she hasn’t visited the cabin for years, her memories of the place are positive, and quickly the two settle into a peaceful routine: walks in the woods, pancakes for breakfast and the discovery of marital routine. However, each night when they fall asleep, a strange light starts circling the cabin. One night, when Paul wakes and fails to find Bea next to him, he heads outside to look for her, and things start to take a turn for the worse.

Effectively a slow-burning two-hander, Honeymoon is an impressive lesson in stretching a meagre budget to build up tension and unease. With strong lead performances, the film works best when it is exploring the marriage at a micro level: what works as an alien intrusion in their lives can also stand for the dissolving of their relationship due to changing personalities. It is this ambiguity, further emphasized by the surprise meeting of an old acquaintance of Bea’s at the local diner, that gives the film its sharp edge.

Director Leigh Janiak is terrific at creating atmosphere early on: although the cabin and the woods initially come across as peaceful, welcoming locations, it’s the contrast with what happens when the couple go to sleep that unnerves the audience. The encounter at the diner only adds to the sensation that something is wrong. As Rose Leslie’s Bea becomes a mystery even to her husband Paul, it’s the drip by drip delivery of clues that makes watching Honeymoon an exercise in unbearable tension.

This review is part of our Film4 FrightFest 2014 coverage.

Building to a convincing and eye-popping climax, Honeymoon is the sort of low-budget film that manages to frighten without ever resorting to cheap jump-scare tactics like some of its big-budget counterparts. The intense focus on Bea adds further intrigue to this genre offering at a time when finding strong female leads is still a rarity.

Evrim Ersoy

Watch the trailer:

Under the Skin

Under the Skin
Under the Skin

Format: Cinema

Release date: 14 March 2014

Distributor: Studiocanal

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Writers: Walter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer

Based on the novel by: Michael Faber

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Paul Brannigan

USA 2013

108 mins

Scarlett Johansson is an alien. I first noticed her as the gawky teenaged misfit in Ghost World then as the object of Billy Bob Thornton’s chaste affections in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Of late her programme of world domination has involved a brief creative partnership with Woody Allen, a number of odd bathroom mirror selfies, a spunky anti-Paltrow fixture in the superhero maxi-franchise The Avengers and interminable and politically suspect adverts for SodaStream. And yet in the midst of the busy vortex of a career that is in danger of spiralling into the celebrity stratosphere, there are still these playful excursions into art-house territory. Earlier this year she voiced Samantha – taking over from Samantha Morton – in Spike Jonze’s Her, a silky Siri whose initial PA/best friend with booty call benefits becomes the object of Joaquin Phoenix’s metrosexual affections. The flimsy elevator pitch premise is imbued with something more, partly because of the shift of focus in the third act to Johansson’s rapidly developing persona. In a coy joke, Samantha begins as a happy female slave – a Jeeves to Phoenix’s Bertie – but as she learns and communes with her own kind this intimacy, which a star of Johansson’s magnitude trades in, is superseded by the altitude she is soaring. This trajectory could be matched by an audience member who recalls her best friend role in Ghost World but now sadly recognises her unattainable ascension in the current culture.

If Jonze’s film is a more-in-sadness-than-anger meditation on the revenge of ineffable female glamour, then Under the Skin features a nightmare retelling of the same star quality. Here Johansson is a predatory alien who prowls Glaswegian streets in a white transit van searching for young men who will not be missed. The cold and unattractive grit of the setting and the impenetrable accents contrast with Johansson’s apparently vulnerable slumming. Playing against her glamour, she adopts a BBC Radio One English rather than utterly other-worldly American and sports a fur coat and a mop of dark brown hair. And yet she is warm and inviting, friendly, unthreatening and fatally attractive. It is once trapped that she can apply her mesmerizing charm, tempting her victims to their doom.

In his first film in a decade, Jonathan Glazer has produced a darkly fascinating work of art. A Roegish trip, the film is an intense abstract horror story. Time and again our sympathy for and fascination of Johansson are manipulated and provoked. Even as we are aware of her antagonistic role and essential vicious otherness, we can’t help but feel for her as she falls over in the street, or is bustled into a nightclub. She is – after all – Scarlett Johansson. She is the misogynist’s wet dream: a bewitching femme fatale, a destroyer of young men, venereal disease made flesh, a prick tease whose ultimate punishment fulfils an atavistic nastiness the film doesn’t shy away from. Sexiness is the opposite of sex, becoming, like Oscar Wilde’s cigarette, the perfect pleasure by being utterly unsatisfying (and incapable of satisfaction).

And yet as Glazer’s underrated Birth explored the obsidian angles of a woman grieving, so Under the Skin escapes the vegetarian parable of the original novel and becomes an utterly beguiling retracing of the word glamour back to its witchy origins.

John Bleasdale

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