Under the Skin Video review: Sci-Fi at its Worst

Under the Skin  (2013)
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
A24 Films
108 minutes, R (nudity)

Scar Jo gets under our skin--in a bad way
Movies can be narrative stories and they can be montages of visually stimulation. The great ones are usually both. A story within a pedestrian frame begs the question of why we shouldn't just curl up with a book. Images without a narrative is even trickier. Unless there's something filmic in the production–some intriguing point of view or a way to convey drama in a new way, for instance–the movie is little more than a mechanical flipbook. Alas, that's the sin of which Under the Skin is guilty.

The film dazzles with its dark exteriors and interiors, its relentless moodiness, and with Scarlett Johansson's first movie nude scenes. I recall a few years back that some magazines were offering her seven figures to reveal hers. She should have taken the money as her secret is out now and she's not going to collect residuals on this turkey. A few art house critics praised Ms. Johansson's performance as bold and mesmerizing, and she even copped a few award nominations–mostly at festivals you've never heard of in places you wouldn't wish to go. But despite praise from those critics prone to love all things postmodern, Under the Skin failed to recoup its paltry $13 million budget. It is all surfaces and no story–lots of atmosphere and imagery in service of nothing whatsoever. All of this is to say if you sole motive for considering this film is to see Scar Jo in the all-together, try Google images instead.

Johansson, credited simply as "the woman," spends most of the film driving a van around Scotland–Glasgow mainly, though I recognized a few locations in Orkney and East Lothian. She entices unattached men into the van and lures them to her apartment where they think they're about to hit the roly-poly jackpot, but as they walk toward her undressed body they slowly sink into an inky dark pool. They don't drown, but eventually their bodies exit and leave just the skins behind. Okay, so we've got a bit of sci-fi, but what is Scar Jo? A mutant? A replicant? An alien? A vampire? A symbiant? Don't wait for the film to enlighten you. Nor will it tell you why a motorcyclist sometimes seems to help her and at other times seems to be stalking her. Or why she decides to free a disfigured man (Adam Pearson), or why she actually makes love with another man only to jump out of bed, stare at her vagina, and flee. For what is she searching? Her vacant eyes and flat affect suggest a search for awareness–as if she is trying to figure out and emulate human behavior, but we don't know why. Nor do we learn anything when she sheds her Scar Jo skin to reveal a jet-black featureless being inside.

Other basic questions left unanswered include: Where does she get gas money? Who pays the rent on the pad with the licorice pool? If Scar Jo is so unaware, how can she navigate and drive? Why would a being that leaves a baby on a beach and shows no evidence of any sort of compassion suddenly free a deformed man? What the hell does anything in this film mean?

I run into lots of people who tell me they hate science fiction. I tell them that good sci-fi builds alternative universes and worldviews that make us contemplate the meanings of our own. Alas, Under the Skin is sci-fi at its incomprehensible worst. It has neither rhyme nor meter–­it's a meandering trip to nowhere that gives us no insight into who "the woman" (and presumably the motorcyclist) are, what they want, what they think, how they live, or what they believe. One must ultimately conclude that Johansson's nudity is gratuitous in that it serves neither plot nor character. In fact, her body is the only thing that is revealed in Under the Skin. Yes, both she and the other images look good, but if all you want is a series of stunning moving visuals, rent Koyaanisqatsi.-- Rob Weir


Tigers by a Whisker in a Wide-Open Division

AL Central Should Be Wide Open

One last roar? I think so.
This could be one of MLB's more interesting divisions. All five teams have a legitimate shot at winning the Central; all five are also flawed and could tank horribly. It still looks like the Tigers' division to lose, but the Striped Cats are by no means a lock and they're not as good as last year.

Why the Tigers Should Win: Even after losing Scherzer, who wouldn't want a staff with Verlander, Price, and Sanchez? If Alfredo Simón makes the NL-to-AL transition and Greene is a decent # 5, the Tigers' staff will remain formidable. Add MLB's best offensive player–yes, he's still better than Mike Trout–in Miggy Cabrera; mix him in with Kinsler, Céspedes, Avila, and the emerging J. D. Martinez and Detroit will provide plenty of run support.

            Why Detroit May Go Bankrupt: Verlander hasn't dominated for several years and the bullpen is very shaky (Joba, Albuquerque, Soria, Nathan). I didn't think Iglesias was very good before he missed all of last year, nor am I convinced Céspedes will ever hit for average. A key injury or two could cage the Tigers.

Will the Royals Again Be Flush? Call me skeptical. Losing James Shields hurts—a lot! Vólquez arrives–the he'll-be-a-star former phenom who's all of 66-59 lifetime based on just two good years out of nine. Ventura might be their ace, but I can't say I've ever thought much of Vargas or Guthrie. I still think Wade Davis ought to be a starter. Holland had an amazing year last year, but can he duplicate it? The offense hits for power—headed by Hosmer, Gordon, Infante, Morales, and a resurgent Moustaka. Perez looks poised to become an elite catcher.
            For all of this, I need the Royals to pull an Ultimate Missouri and show me they're for real. It's still a team that relies on big innings from guys whose on-base percentages could/should be better. Are the Royals 4-5 games worse without Shields? I think so and that makes them just an 84-win team. 

Can the Indians Pull a Surprise Attack? They could, though losing Gavin Floyd to the DL doesn't help. Kluber is the reigning Cy Young winner, Bauer is very good, and McAlister should be. Cody Allen as closer doesn't inspire though. Nice outfield with Brantley, Murphy, and Bourn, though the latter needs to justify his inflated contract and he simply hasn't done so yet. Moss at first sends Chisenhall across the diamond to third­–potentially a defensive problem. Catcher Carlos Santana might see action at third–not good. Love Kipnis at second.

Did the White Sox Buy Respectability? No. Not with Chris Sale on the DL. Let's just say that Noesi isn't a replacement. I also fail to see the Samardzja hype. Melky Cabrera comes over, but the Sox will miss Adam Dunn. Unless a few guys catch fire–including a few (Eaton, Beckham, Flowers) who seem to be made of asbestos–this team might struggle to score. Closer David Robertson is a nice addition, but they overpaid to get him.


1. Tigers: Soft pick that can be picked off. Every year they look ferocious on paper and each year they are less than the sum of their parts. This year they look weaker, so logic dictates that 2015 will be the year they roar!
2. Indians: Terry Francona is one of the best managers in baseball. This club won't astonish anyone with its star power, but it looks like the team Billy Beane always tried to build in Oakland. Call this a hunch, but I see the Indians in the playoffs.
3. Royals: Was 2014 the sign of things to come, or just a lucky aberration? Show me again in 2015 and I'll start believing.
4. White Sox: Splashy off-season, but still way too many holes. There's enough talent on the South Side for the Sox to be this year's Royals, but I don't think that will happen. I still say the White Sox will do better than the Cubs, though.
5. Twins: Not this year, but soon. Nice mix of veterans (Mauer, Hunter, Suzuki) and rising youngsters (Dozier, Arcia, Plouffe), but the Twins simply don't yet have enough pitching to get to the postseason—Hughes, Santana, and Nolasco have to be on anyone's "Most Likely to Disappoint" list. But watch them–they won't lose 92 games again this year. 


Likud a Better Choice than Hamas


How could it happen? Why did Israeli voters return Benjamin Netanyahu to power? Glad it was spring break when the news came down, otherwise my campus would have erupted in protests. For obscure reasons–though I suspect backdoor Anti-Semitism–quite a few people out my way demonize Israel and equate Palestinians with a seven-year-old being pummeled by a band of sixth grade bullies.

I'm no fan of Benjamin Netanyahu. I think his recent speaking stunt before the U.S. Congress was reprehensible, that he is an anachronism, and that his utterances are more provocative than effective. But if I were an Israeli, I probably would have voted for him. That's because, for all his faults, Netanyahu is right to oppose the creation of independent Palestinian state as long as Hamas pulls the power strings. The nature of Hamas is among the many things Americans don't get about the conflict. Here are a few more:

1. The Palestinian/Israeli conflict cannot be explained via Israeli bullying.

Let's dispense with the nonsense that the Palestinians are innocent victims in this conflict. Hamas is a terrorist organization that calls for Israel's annihilation. In 2014, Hamas and its affiliates launched 4,005 missiles into Israel. It was also responsible for 15 terrorist attacks inside Israel and the loss of 47 lives.

The anti-Israel crowd likes to dismiss these terrorist acts by pointing out that far more Palestinians have died than Israelis. That doesn't make the Palestinians innocents–just militarily ineffective. (Israel's Iron Dome defense system is reasonably good at shooting down rockets.) It was the Palestinians who launched a new intifada against Israel in 2014, not vice versa–just as they launched the first one (1987-93) and the second (2000-05). Funny thing about that–when you attack someone, they tend to fight back rather vigorously.

Those who argue that disproportionate power justifies the use of terror lack moral authority. It is a classic means-justify-the-ends argument that ignores famed examples of using moral force to subdue superior firepower: the Gandhi movement in India, the U.S. civil rights movement, "people's power" in the Philippines, Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, Serbia's Optor protests against Slobodan Milosevic, Ukraine's Orange Revolution….  One could make the case that Hamas are, at best, fools to think attacks on Israel do anything other than ensure Likud's success.

2. Hamas is a terrorist organization.

A better approach would be to look at what Hamas stands for and what it does and conclude the obvious: Hamas is a terrorist organization that, given the chance, would behave with all the brutality of ISIS or Boko Haram. It tries to hide its desire to destroy Israel by claiming that it is only trying to "liberate [its] homeland." But most of that "homeland" just happens to be land marked "Israel" on a map near you–and I'm not talking about West Bank settlements. Despite its in-principle acceptance of a two-state solution, it also calls for Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine and Gaza. Only a naïf thinks that's acceptable.

Want to see Hamas's real stripes? Check out Hamas leader Khaled Marshaal's recent plea for Iran to "liberate" Palestine by attacking Israel. I wonder how the US would react if a Mexican leader based in Tijuana traveled to Moscow and asked Vladimir Putin to help liberate California. I wonder how we'd react to missiles flying across our borders. Need I remind how the entire country went into lockdown after 9/11, or that the Gallup Poll revealed that 88% of Americans supported the decision to wage war against the Taliban?

3. Israelis reelected Netanyahu because peace isn't immanent.

Why not reelect a security-first candidate at a time in which peace is unlikely? That's what Americans did in 2004 when wars raged in Afghanistan and Iraq–wars I hasten to add were not related to the very survival of the United States. Is anyone out there seeing "moderates" with whom Israel can reasonably negotiate? Don't tell me it's Mahmous Abbas or the Fatah Party; Israel correctly sees Abbas as a powerless straw man who can't sneeze unless Hamas loosens his noose.

Likud supporters also lack moral force, but they're not crazy when they see a return to 1967 borders as dangerous. West Bank settlements are based upon a buffer-zone notion of border security. Without them Israel is just ten miles wide at its narrowest point, which would open the possibility of daily showers of Hamas rockets upon Tel Aviv that even the Iron Dome couldn't counter. As uncomfortable as it sounds, until peace actually breaks out, those settlements might be the best hedge against another full-scale war. Likud says it deals from strength rather than weakness. Israelis apparently agree.

4. Israel is a democracy.

How did Netanyahu win? He won because Israel–unlike any other nation in the region–is a democracy. Democracies some times return messy results, or do smug Americans believe that George W. Bush was the best candidate we could have elected? Democracy is particularly thorny in Israel because it also has a broader electorate than others in the region and because it's a parliamentary democracy. Arabs and Palestinians make up about 21% of Israel's population and can vote. They are disproportionately represented in parliament, but they can/do vote for president. 
The Knesset's (Parliament) 120 seats are proportionately distributed. Likud won just 30 of them–six more than Isaac Herzog's runner-up Zionist Union Party–and is still 31 seats shy of a majority. Herzog has rejected a call to support Likud, which means Netanyahu must cobble a coalition from among the eight other parties that won seats in the Knesset.

If you really hate Netanyahu, you might not have him around for long. In parliamentary democracies, when the government loses its majority, new elections must be held.  It's going to take at least four parties to obtain a 61-seat majority and thus far only the Jewish Home Party (8 seats) and the centrist Kulanu Party (10) are on board. Netanyahu simply won't have the power to put his incendiary rhetoric into action. What could change that is if the West does something stupid such as launching a boycott against Israel, or if the United States rescinds its veto of Palestinian statehood. Such actions would probably hand Likud an outright majority in new elections.

5. People who live in glass houses…

After the stolen election of 2000 and the money-driven U.S. elections since Citizens' United it boggles the mind that the United States would tell other democracies how to conduct their affairs. And doesn't a majority of the current Congress favor mass deportation of illegal immigrants and immigration restriction? Hmmm…. The GOP or Likud? Can I get back to you?