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Review: The Skin I Live In, Martha Marcy May Marlene and Ghost Rider- Spirit of Vengeance

By April 21, 2012No Comments

The Skin I Live In posterAnyone won­der­ing wheth­er the great Pedro Almodóvar had lost some of his edge at the ripe old age of 62 should imme­di­ately check out his new film The Skin I Live In which is as deranged as any­thing else he has pro­duced in more than thirty years of fea­ture film mak­ing. Puss In Boots him­self, Antonio Banderas, plays a suc­cess­ful plastic sur­geon with a dark secret. Many of his greatest med­ic­al achieve­ments are a res­ult of the exper­i­ments he con­ducts on a beau­ti­ful woman (Elena Anaya) held cap­tive in his mansion.

Who is she? Why is she there? These ques­tions are answered in the film but have to be skir­ted around here for even the tini­est hint at spoil­ers will wreck some of the twisti­est (in all senses of the word except per­haps con­fec­tion­ary) sur­prises you will exper­i­ence all year. It’s enough to say that if this film had been made in the 1950s then Banderas’ char­ac­ter would have been played by Vincent Price (think House of Wax) and that every­one involved would have been run out of town by the authorities.

Happily, The Skin I Live In is more than just an incred­ibly bizarre premise taken to out­rageous con­clu­sions, more than just a campy homage to goth­ic hor­ror. It’s a beau­ti­fully con­struc­ted film, eleg­ant, col­our­ful, con­trolled, flaw­less. It’s Almodóvar back in the finest of form, mak­ing the unbe­liev­able not just cred­ible but desir­able. His last film, Broken Embraces, was a dis­ap­point­ment. Unfocused and self-referential, it seemed like the work of someone dis­trac­ted. I’m pleased to report that The Skin I Live In is a triumph.

Martha Marcy May Marlene posterIf The Skin I Live In is a hor­ror film without any overt hor­ror, Martha Marcy May Marlene is a drama made in the style of a hor­ror film. Newcomer Elizabeth Olsen plays Martha, an escapee from a cult-like com­mune some­where in the coun­try. She’s liv­ing with her estranged sis­ter (Sarah Paulsen) and her hus­band (Hugh Dancy), unable or unwill­ing to explain what she’s been through and increas­ingly para­noid that cult lead­er John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) is com­ing to get her back.

Switching effort­lessly between the present and a flash­back past, writer-director Sean Durkin slowly reveals Martha’s trauma, build­ing ten­sion until a per­fect end­ing leaves the audi­ence with just the right amount of space to fill with our own con­clu­sions. Olsen (young­er sis­ter of fam­ous child stars the Olsen Twins) is the real deal and deliv­ers a superb cent­ral per­form­ance, tough and brittle by turns.

Like We Need to Talk About Kevin, Martha Marcy May Marlene presents us with us a (prob­ably) unre­li­able cent­ral char­ac­ter. What we are see­ing on screen isn’t always object­ive truth recor­ded by a neut­ral cam­era. It’s an impres­sion­ist­ic view of real­ity as seen through the eyes of a dam­aged psyche. This means an extra lay­er of decod­ing has to be done by the view­er – and is all the bet­ter for it.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance posterAfter two excep­tion­ally well-constructed films it was a not-unpleasant exper­i­ence to wal­low in the good humoured and sham­bol­ic Ghost Rider sequel Spirit of Vengeance. The ori­gin­al was made in Australia and this time the pro­du­cers have found some­where even cheap­er – Romania and Turkey, where some won­der­ful (prob­ably world her­it­age) loc­a­tions provide some much-needed addi­tion­al visu­al interest. Also on the plus side of the ledger, The Wire’s Idris Elba (dodgy French accent) and Highlander Christopher Lambert (real French accent).

Once again Nicolas Cage is Johnny Blaze, former motor­cycle stunt man turned pos­sessed tool of the Devil, now run­ning from his past some­where in Eastern Europe. Throwing out Peter Fonda’s Mephistopheles from the ori­gin­al film, we’re now asked to believe that Blaze did his deal with a char­ac­ter called Roarke (Ciarán Hinds) who wants to replace his dying human form with 12-year-old Fergus Riordan who is already half-Devil (accord­ing some cockamam­ie proph­ecy) and just needs some fin­ish­ing off. Elba’s char­ac­ter enlists Blaze/Ghost Rider, offer­ing him the chance to reverse his curse if he can pro­tect the boy.

This film is all over the place. Cage seems to do whatever he damn well pleases nowadays and the script has had a lot of lame jokes added that might have helped sell the film at a trail­er level but stick out like dog’s balls in the fin­ished product. Directing team Neveldine/Taylor (the com­pletely bril­liant Crank) enlist their cus­tom­ary hyper­act­ive cam­era tech­nique which doesn’t suit the con­ver­sion to 3D. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is a bad film but not a hate­ful one.

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 21 March, 2012.