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This image released by A24 Films shows Scarlett Johansson in a scene from ‘Under the Skin’. (AP)
‘Skin’ sci-fi shock to the system ‘Dom Hemingway’ heartfelt, amusing tale of redemption

NEW YORK, April 4, (AP): Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien seductress who trolls Scotland for human prey, is a provocative, disturbing sci-fi shock to the system. The effect is deliberate. The movies, Glazer says, could use a jolt. The appropriately titled “Under the Skin” has already baffled and polarized festival audiences and left slack-jawed critics (mostly) in awe of its alien beauty and mysterious horror. It’s one of the most thrilling and unlikely new releases in some time because it’s such a full cinematic experience - a dark nightmare of images and sound, played out with perhaps the movies’ most alluring female star.

The handsome, amiable Glazer, who made acclaimed music videos and commercials before directing the films “Sexy Beast” and “Birth,” doesn’t come across as a provocateur. But he believes strongly in the unlocked power of movies, particularly when liberated from three-act storytelling and dialogue conventions. “The medium is extraordinary,” he said in a recent interview over coffee in New York. “There’s so much there, so much to be explored. We’ve taken a turn somewhere in cinema where we want a story that’s clearly articulated. The images can really sing free of that.”

“Singing” would be a gentle way of describing what the images do in “Under the Skin,” which is loosely adapted from Michel Faber’s 2001 novel. The film opens in a strange sensory limbo - a growing white pinhole, a black orb, a human-like eye - that suggest some kind of alien creation of a human form. The scenes of Johansson picking up passers-by were filmed on real Glasgow streets with real, unsuspecting people, and many of the interactions were shot from hidden cameras in the van. (Contracts were signed after such scenes.) So for scenes in “Under the Skin,” one of the most recognizable actresses in the world strolled through a crowded mall and accosted unwitting strangers on the road.

“I had never experienced anything like that, shooting a film that was challenging in ways I never could have predicted,” said Johansson, speaking recently by phone while traveling to promote “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which ironically opens simultaneously with “Under the Skin.” In the unusual circumstances, Johansson had to fight against self-consciousness, she says. But the confidence she gained from doing the film propelled her afterward on Broadway in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and even helped provide the action-star swagger needed for “Captain America.”

“It was a huge milestone for me creatively,” says Johansson of “Under the Skin.” ‘’I felt much stronger as an actor coming out of production. I felt like I could really be anything.” Glazer acknowledges he and producers would joke during shooting that Johansson would surely be airlifted out by a helicopter of Hollywood agents, rescuing her from such an art-house oddity. But, he says, their collaboration was surprisingly smooth. “She never wavered,” says Glazer. “And I put her in some uncompromising situations.” Integral to the film is its astonishing score by Mica Levi, the young alternative British musician known as Micachu. With an atmosphere reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the music is eerily otherworldly, buzzing with the kind of discord that defined Johnny Greenwood’s “There Will Be Blood” score. Especially memorable are the jagged viola strings and airless beat of Johansson’s theme, which Levi says was conceived to be like “a striptease.” “We were talking about her putting on her makeup and buying that lipstick and her disguise,” says Levi. “That music is kind of like meant to be another tool for luring in men. It’s like a seductive tune that she puts on.”

“Under the Skin” is human life seen through dispassionate alien eyes. She remains inscrutable - the nature of her mission is mysterious, her backstory nonexistent. “We tried not to attach too much human comprehensiveness to it,” says Glazer. Moviegoers see fresh the strange wonder of humdrum life and the exotic beauty of the Scottish Highlands. But our alien protagonist also has nothing like human empathy. Though she subtly evolves, there are discomforting scenes of her ignoring tragedy. One scene at a beach with a toddler has probably driven the most walk-outs from “Under the Skin” audiences, though Glazer corrects, without regret, “There’s a steady stream of people leaving.” “It’s important that it’s wild, untamed,” says Glazer. “I’ve always hated films that try to ingratiate themselves, try to get empathy from me, try to tell me that this is the person to root for. I want to make my own mind up about that, as a viewer.” He’s looking for a different, more uneasy reaction to “Under the Skin,” too. How would he feel about a unanimous standing ovation? “It would be a failure.”

A temperamental, egotistical, British ex-con with a soft side for the daughter he left behind, Jude Law is magnetic as the title character in “Dom Hemingway,” an amusing tale of vengeance, debauchery and redemption told stylishly by writer-director Richard Shepard. Dom is introduced shirtless while delivering a verbose rant. His speech could be seen as a pathetic attempt at a pick-up technique, except he’s so puffed up. It’s clear he could care less whether anyone agrees with him or not - and his delusion is hilarious. His monologue sets the outlandish tone for the film, where Dom, a safecracker, believes he’s irresistible and indestructible.

Fresh out of prison after serving 12 years, so reads the first of many chapter cards, Dom is more than ready to make up for lost time. After binging on booze, cocaine and hookers, he and his partner-in-crime, Dickie Black (an amusingly dry Richard E. Grant), head to the lavish home of his boss, Mr. Fontaine (the equally charming and ruthless Demian Bichir). Dom refused to rat out the crime boss and he’s come to collect for his good deed. But before he can walk away with his hefty gift, a brush with death - effectively displayed in slow motion - leaves him empty-handed.

Broke, bloody and liquored up, Dom shows up at his daughter’s doorstep hoping she’ll welcome him with open arms. But Evelyn (Emilia Clarke of “Game of Thrones” as a redhead), now living with her significant other and their son, is less than impressed with her father. And so begins his quest to win back her affection, while dipping back into a life of crime to try to make a bit of change. Luckily, he’s still an expert when it comes to opening safes. Dom is one of Law’s richest roles yet. He packed on an extra 20 pounds and rocked thick lamb-chop sideburns for this one. He’s brazenly comical, absurdly grimy and believably brawny. But at times, his Dom is ridiculously unsympathetic. We’re with him when he bloodies the face of a man who romanced his wife during his jail sentence. But when we discover that man cared for her as she died of cancer, it’s impossible to continue to applaud his assault.

As Dom is unable to piece his life back together, especially where Evelyn is concerned, his snarling arrogance subsides and he begins to succeed at getting us to feel sorry for him. We also take cues from his adorable grandson (Jordan A. Nash), who seems content just sitting next to Dom. The same writer-director behind the crime comedy “The Matador,” Shepard writes with rousing wit, but occasional scenes tend to drag and feel excessive. Still, he’s at his best when giving Dom lines like, “I only use a gun to hold up a place.Or threaten someone.Or rob ‘em.Or pistol whip ‘em.Or scare ‘em. But no, no hunting.” It’s the film’s humor that also makes Dom likable. Many of the blows to his ego are due to his droll naivety. But it’s a good look for Law, who checks his pretty boy image at the door to give one of his grittiest performances yet.

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