Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Blu-ray Reviews: Under the Skin, Nymphomaniac, Volumes I and II, and Criterion 2x: Picnic at Hanging Rock and Red River

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Blu-ray Reviews: Under the Skin, Nymphomaniac, Volumes I and II, and Criterion 2x: Picnic at Hanging Rock and Red River

by Tony Dayoub

I'm playing catch-up with some of the Blu-rays I've been asked to review recently. So here's a selection of summer releases that's kind of evenly divided between experimental narratives and a couple of classics from the Criterion Collection. (One could argue that Picnic at Hanging Rock belongs in both categories.) Keep in mind the 50% off Criterion sale at Barnes and Noble is in its last week (it ends on 7/28).

(Except where listed, all screen captures are my own. Click on each photo to see it in its actual size.)

Screen Capture courtesy of

Under the Skin (2014)

After a nearly decade-long hiatus from cinemas, gifted director Jonathan Glazer (Birth, Sexy Beast) returns with the inscrutable Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson. At least it's supposed to be inscrutable, but most viewers should figure it out fairly quickly. Glazer utilizes the emotionally inert Johansson to great effect. Here, she plays a quirky, extra-buxom woman preying on male loners throughout Scotland. Whoever gets into her van is guaranteed to be toast, so she is very selective about only picking men who have no friends, families or lovers. As Under the Skin unfolds, the icy woman begins to empathize with her victims, becoming tolerant of surroundings from which she once felt alienated. Reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth, Glazer's film has much less to say about the human condition. But visually, it's a stunner. And Under the Skin does create a chilly, creepy, erotic vibe that's hard to shake.

Nymphomaniac, Volumes I and II (2014)

Originally intended to be released as one 4-hour film, Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac was released as a diptych here in the U.S. instead. As has become the norm, Trier attracts a superlative cast, especially for a movie this explicit. (The sex is real, but body doubles and prosthetics were used to protect the actors from actually participating.) The players includes Shia LaBeouf, Stellan SkarsgÄrd, Christian Slater, Udo Kier, Jamie Bell, Willem Dafoe, Connie Nielsen, and a spectacular Uma Thurman who, were it not for the nature of the film, might be seriously bandied about as award-worthy for her one devastating scene as a cuckolded wife.

Though Nymphomaniac is divided fairly easily into two halves depicting the sexually addicted Joe as a youth (Stacy Martin) in the first part and as an adult (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in the second, Magnolia Entertainment's Blu-ray release includes both (on two separate discs). That's fortunate because one really needs to see the two together to feel the potent if perverse exhilaration Martin's Joe experiences as she gives in unreservedly to her pathology in part I, before society and her own body punish Gainsbourg's Joe so brutally for transgressing into what is the traditionally masculine domain of sexual freedom. Memorable and shocking as always, the influential Trier still leaves room for quite a lot of dark humor emphasizing why, of all the filmmakers working today, he is the one to watch.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

In Picnic at Hanging Rock, the kind of introspection we usually associate with director Peter Weir is magnified considerably by the expert application of the one central location in its title. There we witness the aforementioned picnic of an all-girls school out on a field trip in turn-of-the-century Australia. The isolation and repressed sexuality of the pubescent young women permeates the puzzling story especially after some of the girls disappear on the excursion and, save for one, are never heard from again. Hanging Rock is a subtler and kinder expression of burgeoning womanhood than the darker, more overt The Beguiled in which Clint Eastwood's introduction into a similar environment causes the all-female staff and students to lose their heads over his presence. The apparently overnight disconnect that occurs between childhood and adulthood in Picnic at Hanging Rock may be more delicate but it's no less cruel.

Red River (1948)

Essentially, Red River is Howard Hawks' take on Mutiny on the Bounty as a western. In execution, though, it is much more than that. The tension between John Wayne's straight ahead cattle rancher Tom Dunson and Montgomery Clift's more circumspect cowboy Matt Garth is mirrored by that in their performances. Intentional or not, consider Red River the first shot across the bow of traditional, personality-driven Hollywood acting by the New York-based Actors Studio proponents of the Method. Red River doesn't prove one is better than the other. If anything, it demonstrates the dynamism created by giving both styles their due. Wayne is as fascinating to watch as Clift, and both are equally intense as the surrogate father/son team of cattle drivers. As Groot, Walter Brennan is there to narrate and comment on the fireworks between the two (at least in the theatrical version; the Criterion disc also includes a lengthier pre-release version sans narration with peeks at a journal serving as the narrative transition device). The transfer of the crisp black-and-white is awesome and the release is loaded with extras including two intriguing interviews with Hawks scholar Peter Bogdanovich and critic Molly Haskell.

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