Scarlett Johansson stars in UNDER THE SKIN.

Under the Skin

United Kingdom. Directed by Jonathan Glazer, 2013. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Adam Pearson. 109 minutes.

There are times when the standard Nightmare Gallery review format–where I start by taking a few hundred words to describe the basic premise and through-line of the film’s story–does me absolutely no good when it comes time to sit down and write, and this is one of them.

If you know only one thing about Under the Skin, you know it as the movie in which Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who seduces and abducts men. Now, chances are you’ve seen at least a couple of other movies that could be summed up using that same sentence, or at least a similar one. If nothing else, you’re reading my blog; I specialize in certain subsets of film, and “movies about alien temptresses” fits into some of those subsets rather comfortably.

There’s no way I can describe the basic premise of this movie without making it sound like something you’ve seen a thousand times before. But that does Under the Skin a great disservice. It reduces the film to its most banal level. None of what is memorable or remarkable about the film comes from that. If you specifically want to see a movie about a sexy alien lady, you’re probably best off forgoing this and instead checking if Species is available on Netflix Instant.

You’ve probably heard Ebert’s old axiom that “a movie isn’t about what it’s about, but rather how it’s about it.” If you want proof of that, here it is.

Despite modern effects, a small amount of grue and a frank depiction of human sexuality, Under the Skin is really an old-fashioned science fiction movie. Most modern SF films are really actioners at heart, with fantastic technological concepts placed on it to give characters reasons to shoot things, blow shit up, and maybe talk a little philosophy during the interludes between shooting things and blowing shit up (Godzilla and Looper being two recent examples). There is nothing wrong with this sort of film as a subgenre and I have enjoyed many films that can be described as such. But in prose form, science fiction is considered “the literature of ideas” and when it comes to the cinematic form of the genre I think we’ve lost some of that over the last couple of decades.

The images that introduce Under the Skin recall the “convergence” and “Star Gate” scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I have to believe that’s a deliberate reference on the part of director (and co-screenwriter) Jonathan Glazer. To me, they said, “This a thought-provoking, dialog-light science fiction film, and we’ll prepare you for the experience by using visual quotes from the ultimate thought-provoking, dialog-light science fiction film.”

But like 2001 (and unlike a great many recent films that employ a lot of obscure symbolism in the hopes that said symbolism will make them look deeper and more thoughtful than they actually are), it’s clear what the events in Under the Skin are and what they mean. Glazer admirably trusts the audience to be intelligent enough to sort things out without reams of laboriously contrived exposition. It’s not a film that requires rapt, focused concentration, but it does require you to use your brain a bit.

Mind you, you’re going to want to give it your rapt, focused concentration, because it’s an absolutely gorgeous piece of cinema. It’s beautiful in the way that Kubrick’s films are beautiful, and Tarkovsky’s, and Lynch’s, and Von Trier’s. The flip-side of the “exposition-free, you have to figure it out for yourself” coin is that Glazer is able to tell a story chiefly with images, and so often those images are so brilliant that you will want to fall to your knees and weep for joy that such beauty exists in the world.

These elements that distinguish Under the Skin also ensure that it’s not going to be for everyone. The pace is slow and there’s not a lot of talking, which is not something I had much of a problem with. But I have to think that many viewers are going to see it as “Scarlett Johansson driving around for an hour and then Scarlett Johansson walking around for another hour,” and those viewers are going to find it something of a snooze. I don’t agree, but I do have some sympathy for that viewpoint.

In addition to that, with all the focus on Johansson’s unnamed lead character, I was a bit surprised that it wasn’t more of a showcase for her as an actress. Don’t get me wrong, I think she put in a very good performance (and I’ve never been particularly impressed with her). But a number of actresses were considered for the role and I don’t think many of them would have put in demonstrably worse performances in the role (not even perpetual whipping-girl Megan Fox).

Glazer’s reliance on non-professional actors for the supporting roles also result in a few awkward line readings although I think the verisimilitude the film gains more than makes up for it.

Personal preferences aside, Under the Skin is a genuinely great film that I dearly hope eventually earns the epithet of “classic.” I can’t recommend it highly enough. One of the best of the year, so far.

Under the Skin poster

Graham Skipper stars in ALMOST HUMAN.

Almost Human

United States. Directed by Joe Begos, 2013. Starring Graham Skipper, Josh Ethier, Vanessa Leigh. 80 minutes.

On October 13, 1987, Mark Fisher (Josh Ethier) disappeared from his house in Patten, Maine. The last people to see him alive were his best friend, Seth Hampton (Graham Skipper), and his fiancée, Jen Craven (Vanessa Leigh). Seth’s account of the last time he saw Mark (a wild claim that Mark was taken by unseen forces in a beam of blue light) was universally dismissed–although the disappearance did coincide with a power outage and sightings of strange lights in the sky throughout the region.

Two years later, the people of Patten once again see lights in the sky, and suffer a cut in power. The next day, the news reports that the corpses of two hunters were found murdered in a forest, stripped of their clothes and weapons. Another victim, a gas station proprietor, is reported in due course. The killer apparently stole a truck from the location, and its driver is likewise presumed dead.

The authorities have no leads on a suspect. Nobody knows who the killer is…except Seth. For days, he’s suffered nosebleeds and violent nightmares and visions, and is now convinced of a terrifying truth.

Mark Fisher has returned…except he’s not the same Mark Fisher who was taken on that October night. And he’s on his way back to Patten, coming for Seth and Jen–but not to kill them. His goal is far more horrific than murder.

For me, it’s very rare for a horror film to work almost entirely on the basis of its incident and imagery. First and foremost, I tend to respond to character–writing and acting, or some combination of both. If I believe the characters, primarily how they respond to the presented situations, I believe the entire movie even if the story fails to make sense, the photography is lackluster or the effects laughable.

I won’t follow that paragraph by asserting that Almost Human works on the basis of incident and imagery only, because it doesn’t. Writer/director Joe Begos’s feature début has more going for it than just that. But I must admit that the film has several flaws which I overlook because those two elements of the production work so well for me.

Begos wears his influences on his sleeve, explicitly pitching the film as “Fire in the Sky meets The Terminator” (his words), and making references to a canon which includes the ’78 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing. These influences are almost universally sourced from the late ’70s and the entirety of the ’80s, right down to setting (rural Maine…Stephen King much?) and Andy Garfield’s explicitly Carpenter/Howarth-esque score. Almost Human is unabashedly “throwback” horror even if most of the stylistic hallmarks of the subgenre are missing.

Begos paces the film well through its first two acts and most of its third, keeping the suspense high–the one exception being the film’s final scenes (the movie doesn’t so much end as grind to a halt). He also punctuates the plot with a number of gruesome and discomfiting set-pieces. He understands which bits of nastiness should be shown and which should be kept off-screen. The effects work is top-notch and includes an alien-rape scene which stuck with me for days afterwards.

These are all fine things for a film to do well, but it’s time for me to get back to the paragraph that started this section: characterization and acting. The characters’ responses to situations often lacks credibility, which damages a couple of crucial sequences. Dialog is purely functional, and characters often deliver the same pieces of exposition over and over: Seth, in particular, seems to spend most of the film’s first third impersonating a broken record.

Combined with this are uneven performances coming from two of the movie’s leading threesome, Graham Skipper and Vanessa Leigh. Their performances, when taken overall, aren’t outright bad, but are plagued with awkward or stilted moments. An early conversation between Seth and Jen, for example, feels like the two actors weren’t even on the set together.

Leigh’s response to Jen’s rape is a particular sticking point: she’s just been violated in a particularly revolting way by a (presumably) alien being in the form of the man she nearly married, but she shrugs it off like she tripped and fell. I have a lot of respect for Leigh for the whole sequence (particularly if she didn’t use a stunt double for the grossest part of the scene), and Begos’s script is hardly blameless, but it still drains this highly charged scene of a lot of its power.

The only universally strong major performance comes from co-producer Josh Luthier, who transforms the schlubby lumberjack Mark into a terrifying, unstoppable killing machine. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mark Fisher joins the company of Victor Crowley or Leslie Vernon in the canon of late-model slasher villains.

And yet, I can’t bring myself to turn in an unfavorable review of the Almost Human because when it works, it works beautifully. It’s got some genuinely horrifying content and kept me on the edge of my seat most of the time. Everybody involved gives it their all and nobody fucks around like it’s some lark. Yes, it has its flaws. No, it probably won’t become a cult classic or a shining example of what the genre meant in the mid-’10s. But it should find an audience that will appreciate it.

Almost Human poster

Terror in the Aisles presents Short Cuts

Terror in the Aisles presents Short Cuts

I’ve been attending Movieside events (Massacre/Drive-In Massacre, Terror in the Aisles, Sci-Fi Spectacular) for almost four years. Whenever I attend one, the thing I look forward to the most is almost always the short film program. Not only have the shorts introduced me to some of my favorite local indie filmmakers, they’ve also given me a fresh appreciation for what one can do within the medium and genre.

Continue reading “Terror in the Aisles presents Short Cuts”

HEAVY METAL

Retro Review: Heavy Metal

Canada. Directed by Gerald Potteron, 1981. 90 minutes. 5/10

From the pages of Heavy Metal, the legendary comics magazine of adult fantasy and science fiction, come these tales of heroism, sensuality, violence and imagination.

An astronaut returns to his home with a gift, a green crystal sphere, for his young daughter. But he realizes, too late, that this is no mere bauble. It is the Loc-Nar, “the sum of all evils,” a powerful alien intelligence whose corrupting influence has been felt across worlds, times, and universes. It will destroy the astronaut’s daughter, it says, for she possesses a destiny of which she is yet unaware. But first, it will reveal itself, and the full extent of its powers, to her, in these tales of the death and destruction it has caused.

  • In New York, in the near future, a group of ruthless alien businessmen threaten a young woman in possession of the Loc-Nar, and a taxi driver gets more than he bargained for when he comes to her aid.
  • The Queen of Neverwhere uses it in human sacrifice rituals to commune with the great god Uhluhtc. An arrogant upstart seeks to steal it, to usurp the Queen’s power for himself. Between them stands a stranger: Den, a strapping warrior claiming to hail from a far-away land known as “Earth.”
  • A seemingly harmless bauble picked up by an apparently random passer-by, it nevertheless has the power to interfere with the fate of a roguish spaceship captain on trial for his life.
  • It appears on board a bomber plane during the darkest days of World War II, and teaches the hapless crew that some horrors are worse even than war.
  • A motley crew of aliens pick it–and a beautiful young stenographer–up when it causes an android masquerading as a government scientist to malfunction.
  • Finally, it takes a nomadic tribe under its evil influence, mutating them into warrior savages who make war against an ancient city. The city’s elders call upon the lone descendent of a noble warrior to protect them. But she arrives too late, and her quest becomes one of vengeance.

*   *   *

Most anthology films are mixed bags and the 1981 animated effort Heavy Metal is no exception. Pulpy, a bit sleazy and not particularly sophisticated, it wants to prove animation ain’t just kid’s stuff, but it doesn’t understand what “mature content” actually is. (It’s like the target audience isn’t adults but teenage boys.) It just throws a lot of gore and sex at the audience, and the end result is something like an animated exploitation flick.

It’s not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination. A couple of the segments are quite good, and even the weaker ones aren’t unwatchably bad, especially if you can keep yourself from thinking too much. But taken as a whole, it’s more than a little less than the sum of its parts.

Reviews of the individual segments, using capsule-review ratings, follow.

A scene from HEAVY METAL

Soft Landing/Grimaldi

Heavy Metal kicks off with one Hell of a visual event: a Space Shuttle deploying a 1960 ‘Vette from its cargo bay, which then descends to the Earth’s surface. Then we get the whole thing with the astronaut and the little girl and the Loc-Nar.

This is the film starting as it means to go on, prepping the audience for most of the conceits that recur over the next hour and a half. The animation style is…well, there’s no way around it, pretty creaky by modern standards. If you’re familiar with Ralph Bakshi’s output of this vintage, the animation’s quality shouldn’t really surprise you. I really hope you like rotoscoping, though. On the other hand, if Don Bluth is the standard by which you judge all early-Eighties feature animation, Heavy Metal isn’t likely to impress you.

In terms of the art itself and the overall visual aesthetic, those who like genre mash-ups will find themselves drooling uncontrollably like dogs in Pavlov’s kitchen. “Soft Landing” juxtaposes the Space Shuttle (a very 1981 image) with a classic sports car, and “Grimaldi” twists it again by adding the obviously mystical Loc-Nar to the mix. Again, this is something that the film does throughout, so this is just setting the stage.

Other recurring elements that start here is the sight of a human being dissolving into goo (which declares the film’s commitment to graphic violence as well as being the signature effect of the first third or so of the film) and the use of contemporary rock (mostly hard rock and heavy metal) in the soundtrack, in the form of Jerry Riggs’s “Radar Rider.”

Harry Canyon

The first proper story is a bit of a weird one: initially continuing in the same science fiction-horror vein as “Grimaldi,” with a death scene set to Blue Öyster Cult’s “Veteran of the Psychic Wars,” the genre then shifts to near-future neo-noir, with the taxi-driving title character caught between a beautiful young woman and the alien “investors” who want to buy the Loc-Nar from her.

“Harry Canyon” should work a lot better than it does, considering its refreshingly sardonic tone and beautiful design (apparently influenced by the French comics genius Jean “Mœbius” Giraud), but it comes up short. The writers don’t put much effort into the characterization. For example, the femme fatale doesn’t seem to have a name other than “Girl,” which should give you a good idea of what the film’s sexual politics are like. The world-building is similarly lazy, despite a few nice touches such as the NYPD demanding cash up-front to investigate the attack on Girl.

But the big problem here is the animation. Too many poorly-rendered scenes like the one where Harry hands Girl a beer. Also, notice how the side vents on Girl’s dress seem to appear and disappear from scene to scene. I know enough not to expect Disney quality from Heavy Metal but this is something Bakshi might turn in if he just didn’t give a shit.

Den

About a month ago a friend of mine retweeted the following:

That’s not really true, of course: only two of the stories, “Harry Canyon” and “Den,” are like that. (The two appearing right next to each other in the running order doesn’t help matters, though.) But it is indicative of something I’ve always suspected: while “Taarna” is the segment of Heavy Metal people seem to remember most clearly, “Den” sums up what the hive-mind seems to think the entire experience of watching it is like: cheap T&A and gratuitous violence.

Based on material writer/artist Richard Corben started publishing during a fad in sword-and-sorcery comics (and comix) that lasted throughout the early to mid-’70s, “Den” is essentially Conan with the nudity Marvel Comics couldn’t depict in their comic books featuring Robert E. Howard’s legendary warrior-hero. Basically, it’s a juvenile power-fantasy. A nerdy eighteen-year-old virgin on Earth, Den becomes a muscular, charismatic badass in Neverwhere. Whereas Harry Canyon’s sexual prowess was incidental, Den’s is crucial: in one scene, he literally fucks–albeit temporarily–some sense into one of the villains. No wonder he doesn’t want to go back home.

As such, “Den” feels a bit quainter and cornier than the rest of Heavy Metal, because these days audiences expect more sophistication from fantasy. (Not that fantasy always delivers.) But as a product of the age of Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, it’s exactly what the mass-mind thought fantasy was like in 1981. The writers undercut this somewhat by using the same sardonic sensibility that marked “Harry Canyon,” juxtaposing cornball lines such as “Your great strength has brought peace to my restless body” with the immortal “There was no way I was gonna walk around this place with my dork hangin’ out!”

The story benefits somewhat by refusing to play the material straight. But one piece of casting pushes it a bit too far. To give the film credit, contemporary audiences might not have immediately recognized up-and-coming comic actor John Candy as the voice of Den. Modern audiences don’t have that luxury, and while Candy’s performance isn’t bad (and he probably provided the producers with exactly what they asked for), it’s too distracting. I guess, considering the number of connections that exist between Heavy Metal and Stripes, we should just be thankful Bill Murray didn’t end up in the role.

A scene from HEAVY METAL

Captain Sternn

Next is a tale of Berni Wrightson’s Capt. Lincoln Sternn, standing trial for “twelve counts of murder in the first degree, fourteen counts of armed theft of Federation property, twenty-two counts of piracy in high space, eighteen counts of fraud, thirty-seven counts of rape, and one moving violation.” But he has an angle: he bribed the nebbishy Hanover Fiste to serve as character witness. Unfortunately, fate wrecks Capt. Sternn’s plans when Fiste pockets a small green marble he comes across in the corridor. Prompted by the Loc-Nar, Fiste Hulks out on the stand, accuses Sternn of “selling dope while disguised as a nun,” and proceeds to attack Sternn and the entire space station.

“Captain Sternn” is the more successful of Heavy Metal’s two attempts at outright comedy, and is easily my favorite segment of the bunch. The design matches Wrightson’s illustration style exactly and the script lifts almost all of its dialogue from the first Sternn story. The voice casting–SCTV vets Eugene Levy as Sternn and Joe Flaherty as his lawyer, along with SpongeBob’s Rodger (Squidward) Bumpass as Fiste, is dead-on.

The chase scene goes on a bit too long, and as a segment it doesn’t feel particularly substantial compared to some of the other stories (that’s why I don’t have much to say about it), but on the whole “Captain Sternn” is as good as Heavy Metal gets.

B-17

Based on an unpublished short story by Dan O’Bannon, “B-17” is Heavy Metal’s only excursion into pure horror and apparently the only segment that can’t be traced back to something that originally appeared in the magazine (the Loc-Nar comes from the Lovecrafian mythos Corben invented for the “Den” stories, while “Harry Canyon” and “Taarna” have their own influences).

It’s also another success. The grossest of the lot (not even the corpse-meltings are this disgusting), “B-17” owes an obvious debt to the horror titles of E.C. Comics, with its Loc-Nar-animated corpses attacking the flight crew of a wartime bomber plane. The art, coming in part from comics (creator of Ghost Rider) and animation (Wizards) vet Mike Ploog, is gorgeous and overall the segment is very effective.

If I have to pick a fault, though, it’s in the song used during the segment, “Heavy Metal” by Don Felder. Seriously, who commissions the ex-co-lead guitarist of the Eagles to write and perform a song called “Heavy Metal”? Come on.

So Beautiful and So Dangerous

There are times when Heavy Metal feels more like a product of the ’70s than the ’80s. Of course, most of the source material was actually published during the Me Decade, but that’s not the only reason. And no segment feels more like the ’70s than “So Beautiful and So Dangerous,” which takes the designs of Angus McKie and transplants them into a story which might as well be called Cheech and Chong in Space.

It’s an unfocused, meandering affair, which starts with aliens in a smiley-face spaceship abducting a scientist and a stenographer from a government meeting about Americans mutating into green beasts (I blame the Loc-Nar), and ends with the crew, stoned to the gills on “Plutonian Nyborg” (cocaine, essentially), trying to pilot into a space station hangar (“You know your perspective’s fucked, so you just let your hands work the controls as if you were straight”) while the stenographer discusses the prospect of marriage with the ship’s robot. “I’m just scared some day I’ll come home and find you screwing the toaster.” Legit concern.

John Candy (as the robot), Eugene Levy and the late Harold Ramis (as the crew) put in fine performances, and the art and design (with McKie consulting) are breathtaking, particularly the CG-rendered spaceship, the story is just…kinda pointless, really, never seeming to go anywhere or do or say anything, as if the screenwriters were high on Plutonian Nyborg themselves. (I’ve not read the source material, but I’ve heard it described as a more philosophical affair.)

The feeling I get is that the producers felt Heavy Metal needed three things to prove to the audience that it wasn’t a kiddie cartoon: violence, sex and drugs. Other segments cover the first two (actually, “Beautiful/Dangerous” spends plenty of time objectifying the nude female form as well), but the latter needed to be represented. And thus…this.

A scene from HEAVY METAL

Taarna

The cornerstone of Heavy Metal is its final segment, “Taarna.” Promotional work features the title character heavily (the most common poster art, later used on home video release covers, is Chris Achilleos’s rendition of her). Taking up the final third of the running time, it seemed to have received the most thought…and the most money. “Taarna” is the only segment that gets all the disparate elements–story, themes, character, aesthetic, and animation–right.

Cribbing heavily once again from Mœbius–this time the “Arzach” cycle–“Taarna” takes all the various elements explored in the preceding segments and blends them together to create something other than else. The result is a mystical Western with both science fiction and fantasy elements, like someone trying to describe El Topo without ever having actually seen it.

The key to the segment’s success is the title character. I’ve criticized the film’s depiction of women in earlier paragraphs, but honestly, Heavy Metal is really no more offensive than your average exploitation flick or teen sex comedy of this vintage. And Taarna certainly suffers from her fair share of objectification: she’s as top-heavy as any of the film’s other major female characters, her battle garb consists of a bikini with strapless top and thong bottom, and she spends two or three sequences completely nude.

But she also has a lot of implied depth and is fierce enough to stand toe-to-toe with any modern action heroine. She’s the film’s most fully realized woman, and considering she has absolutely no dialogue, that’s no mean feat.

Epilogue

Sadly, the film’s end, which ties “Taarna” together with the frame story, isn’t as strong as might be hoped. The connection between Grimaldi’s daughter and Taarna isn’t much of a surprise; admittedly, it’s probably not intended as one, but it’s still somewhat lame. And the links between the two segments are…maddening. Everything the film tells us indicates that “Taarna” takes place in the past, so how does Taarna’s defeat of the Loc-Nar affect the girl in the future? The assumption that the two segments take place simultaneously creates its own problems.

It doesn’t kill the whole film or the power of the “Taarna” segment, but it’s a disappointing way to resolve the strongest portion of the film.

Heavy Metal poster

A scene from +1

+1

United States. Directed by Dennis Iliadis, 2013. Starring Rhys Wakefield, Ashley Hinshaw, Logan Miller. 96 minutes. 4/10

Angad’s parents are out of town for the weekend, and you know what that means: party of the century! And he’s pulled out all the stops for this one. Booze, music, dancing, strippers, a sushi girl, the works. This one’s gonna be epic.

Too bad David (Rhys Wakefield) probably won’t enjoy it. His longtime girlfriend Jill (Ashley Hinshaw) broke up with him, after finding him kissing her rival for the collegiate fencing championship. He’s taking it pretty hard, but best friend Teddy (Logan Miller) is insistent that he at least try to have some fun. And when he sees Jill at the party, he realizes he might–might–have a shot at a second chance.

That’s always assuming David survives the night. Angad promised surprises galore, but there’s one surprise nobody could have expected…or planned.

Logan witnesses the first oddity: a drug dealer shot dead in the driveway, by his own exact duplicate. Teddy scores with the girl of his dreams…and as she steps into the shower, her doppelgänger walks through the bedroom door.

There’s two of everybody at this party, and the doubles seem to be living through the same events as the originals, only a few minutes later. Who are they? Where did they come from? And do they have sinister plans in mind?

“What would do me head in is…does he think the same way, look the same way…how would I know which one I was?”

—Karl Pilkington, when asked about how he would respond to meeting his own doppelgänger

The good news is that you can’t fault +1 director/co-writer Dennis Iliadis and co-writer Bill Gullo for falling prey to the usual doppelgänger/bodysnatcher clichés. The bad news is that there are so many other things to fault them for.

Let’s start with the positive. It’s easy to go into the movie expecting a mash-up of The Faculty with Can’t Hardly Wait, but the evil twins of +1 aren’t evil. They’re not alien invaders or mystical shapeshifters. They’re exact copies of the characters, with the same motivations and backstories. They only differ from the “originals” because different things happen to them in the present.

At this point, I originally planned to write “they’re just as confused and scared as the originals” but that’s not strictly true. If anything, they’re more confused and scared. They must cope, not only with the fear that comes from seeing their doubles, but also with the occasional instances of “missing time” (from their point of view) as their timeline comes closer and closer to syncing up with the original.

Knowing there’s an alien monster wearing your face isn’t what scares the characters. What scares them–both groups of them–is not knowing who the others are or why, and not realizing that the two groups are exactly alike.

This is easily the most fascinating aspect of the film and what separates it from most “teen scream” flicks out there. Iliadis and Gullo are as interested in exploring the philosophical ramifications of their premise as they are with delivering T&A and violence to the audience. Their film often feels like a lost Twilight Zone premise: “The Monsters Are Due at Angad’s House.”

The premise almost, but not quite, covers a few severe problems with the story. The party is the same party we’ve seen in a thousand times in a thousand teen movies. There’s more nudity, but that’s about the only difference. The characters are severely underdeveloped, and everything you need to know about most of the main characters can be summed up in a few words. David is a nice guy who blew it and wants to redeem himself. Teddy wants to get laid. Alison is unpopular and doesn’t even want to be there. Melanie is the target of lust. The one exception is Jill, who’s a bit more complex than the others, but sadly the script seems to see her more as a MacGuffin than as a character the audience might identify with.

It’s a credit to the cast–Wakefield, Miller, and the adorable Hinshaw, plus twins Suzanne and Colleen Dengel as Alison (you’ll have to watch the movie to realize why) and Natalie Hall as Melanie–that they can bring these characters to life, because the filmmakers don’t have much interest in investing them with much personality.

Character underdevelopment hits several subplots very hard, and exposes the streak of misogyny that underlies David’s quest to reconcile with Jill. The kiss that breaks the camel’s back is a more complex situation than she sees, but he never speaks up about it (not that we see). She has a lot to say about his personality flaws, but the audience rarely experiences them for itself, and sympathy for one character for another becomes a matter of “he said, she said.” I couldn’t shake the feeling that the filmmakers meant me to think that Jill was being unreasonable, and David’s journey of understanding rang distinctly false to me.

The subplot culminates in something I found personally horrifying but which the film seems to present as a happy ending. I don’t want to spoil it too much here, but the film probably doesn’t benefit from my having watched it so soon after the Isla Vista murders and the ensuing discussion about misogyny in the media. The resolution of this plot went a long way towards ruining my experience of the film.

Ultimately, +1 is a bitter disappointment. It’s a project with a germ of originality, a lot of potential and a few thought-provoking moments, overshadowed by teen-comedy tropes and a severely mishandled subplot.

+1 poster